(RNS) “I ask you to pray for me. Don’t forget!” Pope Francis said as he concluded his first U.S. tour with an open-air Mass in Philadelphia on Sunday (Sept. 27).
He repeated this prayer request refrain at every stop from Washington, D.C., to New York to the City of Brotherly Love. He even reportedly asked Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis to pray for him.
It’s a simple enough request. But for a pope? Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around -– the pope praying for Catholics?
Two things are at work here: a classic Christian understanding of prayer and Pope Francis’ particular understanding of the office of bishop, said the Rev. Claudio M. Burgaleta, associate professor of theology at the Fordham University Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education.
The Apostle Paul exhorted the church to pray for leaders. And prayers for the pope and bishops are said every time communion is celebrated.
“What’s disarming about this pope asking for prayers is that Catholics don’t think of the pope as needing prayers,” said theology professor Thomas H. Groome, director of the Church in the 21st Century Center at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. “The pope intercedes for us before God, whereas him asking us to intercede for him is kind of putting the shoe on the other foot.”
Francis has been asking for prayers from the get-go. The moment he stepped out onto the central balcony at St. Peter’s Basilica after his election he asked for prayer before offering a papal blessing, Burgaleta said.
For him, part of the church’s “pilgrim journey” involves walking together and praying for each other. It’s a motif that recurs throughout his writing and teaching, Burgaleta said. A key ministry concept is the idea of “accompaniment,” which Francis established as a priority in his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel.”
“The Church will have to initiate everyone — priests, religious and laity — into this ‘art of accompaniment,’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other,” he wrote.
The pope is not exempted from sin, added Robin Darling Young, a historian at The Catholic University of America. “Just because on certain very rare occasions he can pronounce on matters of doctrine infallibly doesn’t mean he’s not a human being, and therefore theologically in need of forgiveness,” said Young.
Last year, he confessed to a group of Roman priests that he had stolen a rosary from his confessor’s casket when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. “That robber that is in each of us came out,’” he said.
Since the 1950s, popes have been more pastoral in style, said Young. Francis is often compared to John XXIII, who inaugurated the Second Vatican Council and openly displayed both humor and appreciation for other people. John Paul II showed dramatic flair, but like Benedict XVI, exuded a more scholarly detachment, she said.
Francis is insisting on his solidarity with the whole human family in his need for prayers, said Groome. “Popes are big, powerful leaders. But this man leads out of humility and compassion and mercy, which may be a more effective way to lead, at least on the world stage.”
On a 2013 flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome, Pope Francis explained himself, telling journalists he had always asked people to pray for him, but more so after he had become a bishop. “I feel I have many weaknesses and problems; I am a sinner too. This request is something that comes from within. I also ask Mary to pray for me. It’s a habit that comes from the heart. It’s something I feel I have to ask,” he said.
At Georgetown Preparatory School in Washington, D.C., he was captured on video imploring the school’s president pray for him. It’s “not easy” being pope, he said.
“You watch this 78-year-old man — at times limping along, struggling with English, but trying to be a messenger of mercy, and of justice and of peace in the world,” said Burgaleta. “I think that this appeals, as Lincoln would say, to the better angels of our nature.”
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