For a few hours I doubted last Tuesday whether, after the two-day meeting of the administrative committee of the Adventist Church in France and Belgium, I would be able to leave Paris. The massive amounts of snow in the North of France had caused an enormous chaos on the roads between Paris and Lille, and most flights and trains from the French capital were cancelled. But I was lucky. Around three p.m. a Thalys train at the Gare-du-Nord appeared from somewhere and it was announced that passengers for Brussels could board. It was not clear when the train was to depart and how long the journey would take. But, lo and behold, after a little more than a half hour the train began to move at a somewhat reduced speed and we made the trip to Brussels without any problems. As a result I was in time for my evening meeting at the conference office in Brussels.
The events of this week in Rome were, of course, a lot more interesting. When at the end of the second day of the conclave the white smoke ascended from the chimney, the journalists –some of them were clearly not great experts on the subject—were faced with the challenge to keep talking for an hour about unimportant details, and to speculate about who had been elected as the new pope. But then, there was the surprise: an Argentinian pope, who had chosen the name Franciscus I. A Jesuit! And, once again, someone who is already quite old. [Years ago Samuele Bacchiocchi, the well known Adventist expert on Catholicism, had predicted that one day Bergoglio might have a good chance to be chosen as pope.]
I am often struck by the similarities between the Roman Catholic Church and the Adventist Church. Both denominations have a hierarchical structure, with one powerful person as the top leader. The Catholic Church has traditionally elected an Italian as its leader, with the exception (until now) of a Pole and the German Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI). The Adventists have traditionally chosen an American, with one exception: the previous general conference president (Jan Paulsen), who was a Norwegian. The Catholic Church has now opted for someone from a non-western country. It does not require much prophetic insight to predict that the next general conference president will, in all likelihood, also be a non-western person.
I am curious to see Adventist comments on this papal election. I assume that quite a few ominous conclusions will be drawn from the fact that this 266th pope is a Jesuit. For Jesuits have never been very popular among Adventists. And, no doubt, if there will be any positive reforms or drastic changes, these will be interpreted as mere window dressings. I have seen on the internet the first reactions in that direction.
I prefer an attitude of ‘wait and see’. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was born on December 17, 1936, has in the choice of his papal name been inspired by the founder of the Franciscan Order from the 12th century, but maybe also a little by the famous Spanish Jesuit missionary Franciscus Xaverius, who went to China in the 16th century to proclaim the gospel—and who had concepts of missionary work that were rather progressive for his time.
Will this new pope surprise the world, as some fifty years ago John XXIII surprised the world by convening the Second Vatican Council? Will he cause a fresh wind to blow through his church, or must we look forward to more of the same?
Adventists must continue to critically follow the events in Rome. But it is also important not to be too sure of the all details of the end-time scenario. Almost three millenniums ago God surprised the prophet Jonah by changing his mind with regard to the city of Nineveh. Who knows how God might yet surprise us in the twenty-first century! After all, God often is a God of surprises.