Almost everyone has an opinion about Pope Francis. For some time I have been inquiring of my students, co-workers and others in widely varying circumstances what they think of him and why he has so captured the imagination of believers and nonbelievers alike.
The responses are telling: Francis emphasizes God’s mercy and does not scold or reprimand; he does not just talk, but acts like Jesus especially by showing his love for the poor; his life is simple—no trappings of the office, no special privileges; he excludes no one and shows no favoritism; he uses the vocabulary of ordinary people and communicates as if he is one of us; he consults widely so as to understand the plight of people in all kinds of situations; he is credible, consistently speaking and acting out of his beliefs; he exudes warmth and happiness as he engages with so many people; he does not convey the sense of someone who prefers isolation.
Francis made these impressions in the first moments of his pontificate. He radiated the stance of a humble man who would bring a fresh approach to his role. This partial list of observations conveys more than his tone and manner; in simple words the reflections capture the essence of this pope’s ecclesiology and reveal his emerging vision of the church. In precise and clear words, he has candidly addressed fundamental questions: Who can be saved? Who has a place in the church? What is the mission of the church? What should the church do? What is the best way to govern? How should responsibilities be distributed?
Along with his words, Pope Francis’ very way of being conveys his understanding of the nature of the church and how it should function. While in some ways he has signaled a new era, he also has communicated his commitment to the enduring message of the Gospel and his fidelity to the tradition. In his writings and homilies, interviews and impromptu comments, he has managed to hold these varied strains together in a message that has captivated the world. He has been able to frame his beliefs about what the church should be like in the future.
A Place in the Church
In his most comprehensive document so far, the apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis addresses diverse topics of vital concern to the church. Beginning with some basic elements of ecclesiology, he assures people that all can be saved and all have a place in the church: “Everyone can share in some way in the life of the church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason” (No. 47). He continues: “Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.” Many who have felt alienated and excluded appreciate the opening doors.
In his acceptance of those who have been deemed somehow unworthy in the judgment of others, Pope Francis demonstrates his openhearted approach. In May, for example, he proclaimed in a homily:
The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone! And this blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God, and the blood of Christ has redeemed us all!
While his inclusion of atheists puzzled, if not irritated, some people, his remarks warmed the hearts of multitudes of Catholics and those of other faiths or no faith at all.
Even as he offers a welcome to all, Pope Francis raises challenging issues related to the very topics that have disaffected some, like the meaning of family, homosexuality and the role of women in the church. Though never straying from the tradition, he has a way of framing discussion of these topics to demonstrate his benevolent and respectful attitude. He treads carefully and thoughtfully in raising concerns, never assuming that he knows all the answers but signaling the need for greater understanding of the sensus fidelium. He told members of the International Theological Commission on Dec. 6 that the church has a “duty to pay attention to what the Spirit tells the church through authentic manifestations of the ‘sense of the faithful.’” But even as he voiced this attitude, he made clear that this sense “must not be confused with the sociological reality of majority opinion.”
The pope is using new methods to gain deeper insights into the problems of groups and individuals who feel they have been on the periphery of the church’s concern. For example, in anticipation of next October’s meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the pastoral challenges of the family, the Vatican sent to all of the bishops’ conferences a survey designed to discover what Catholics think about a wide range of family-related topics. Aware of the complexity of these issues in modern culture, the pope recognizes that new approaches to pastoral care need attention as they relate to single-parent families, divorce, contraception, same-sex unions and the frequent practice of premarital cohabitation, among other issues.
The Mission of the Church
Since the early days of his pontificate, the message of Pope Francis about the role of the church in the world was evident. Quotations that reflect his stance abound, especially his concern for the poor in whom he sees the face of Christ. On numerous occasions his aspirations were expressed in terms of care for all, in whatever form their need is made known to us. In May, he visited the Dona di Maria soup kitchen and women’s shelter, a facility located inside the Vatican. He told the women who live there: “You are a gift to this house and to the church. You tell us that loving God and your neighbor isn’t something abstract, but profoundly concrete. That means seeing in every person the face of the Lord to be served and to serve him concretely.” What Francis has done, and what he believes the church should do, is attain greater dignity for those who have no voice.
In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis asserts that the church has the responsibility to proclaim the Gospel in ways that pertain to the whole people of God; the homily is one of the primary vehicles for this instruction. As is true of so much of the pope’s ecclesiology, he focuses on those who will hear the Word preached, not on the one preaching—ad extra rather than ad intra. He insists that the preacher “needs to keep his ear to the people and to discover what it is that the faithful need to hear. A preacher has to contemplate the word, but he also has to contemplate his people.... He needs to be able to link the message of a biblical text to a human situation, to an experience which cries out for the light of God’s word” (No. 154). The pope stresses the use of the language, signs, symbols and questions of the people.
In Chapter 4 of the same apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis underscores the plight of the poor in the section titled “The inclusion of the poor in society.” From a compelling scriptural and doctrinal foundation, he moves to a pragmatic discussion of the reality of imbalances created by present economic structures. While some have criticized his economic analysis as inadequate, his role is not to serve as an economist, but to call attention to the consequences of human behaviors that have created escalating and insurmountable inequity between rich and poor. Foreseeing a potential critique, Pope Francis explains, “If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology” (No. 208). Underscoring his attitude of humility, he confirms that he is interested only in helping those who are negatively affected by the present situation, so they can live a more humane and fruitful life.
Governance in the Church
Early in his papacy, Pope Francis communicated his intent to review and change the governance structures of the church, now widely regarded as dysfunctional and inflated. Toward that end the pope appointed eight cardinals whose official task is to advise him on governance of the universal church and help him revise “Pastor Bonus,” the apostolic constitution on the Roman Curia drawn up by Pope John Paul II in 1988. Considerable change is likely to emerge from a review of the present forms of governance, including more decentralized church authority, altered relationships with bishops’ conferences, more prudent management of church finances and even the shape of the papacy. As part of the reform, Francis already has appointed to key positions archbishops and cardinals who have strong experience in pastoral leadership.
Responsibilities for the life and ministry of the church will be shared in new ways, too, involving all the faithful more completely in efforts of evangelization, a major theme of “The Joy of the Gospel.” Pope Francis has addressed the role of women in particular. Although he rules out the possibility of women’s ordination, he calls for a greater part for women in decision-making in the church. He recognizes that “many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church” (No. 103).
In dealing with entrenched rules and procedures, Pope Francis acknowledges that the process of change will involve dealing with conflict. Some will ignore it, and others will embrace it in a way that causes confusion and dissatisfaction. But, he states, “there is also a third way, and it is the best way to deal with conflict. It is the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process” (No. 227). Reminiscent of the method proposed by the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, this pope is willing to embrace a course that confronts problems that inhibit the full flourishing of the church.
His Way of Proceeding
Considering the multitude of positive responses to Pope Francis, it is clear that his distinctive way of proceeding has unquestionably captured the imagination of Catholics and others all over the world. First among his most beloved characteristics is his bond of friendship with Christ. “When you are with him, you get to know Christ personally,” observed Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Above all, Pope Francis radiates God’s love and helps people recognize how much they are loved by God. The outpouring of his affection is universal. He is slow to judge and quick to forgive; he consults widely and tries to understand groups and individuals in their daily struggles. Not often mentioned, but also discernible, is his utter brilliance. His command of the tradition is especially evident in “The Joy of the Gospel,” in which he quotes numerous sources, ranging from the church fathers to the documents of the Second Vatican Council and from Pope John XXIII to Pope Benedict XVI. The depth of his awareness of the worldwide nature of the church is reflected in references from all continents and peoples.
Something new is emerging in the ecclesiology of Pope Francis, but at the same time his fidelity to tradition remains firm. The now-famous interview conducted by Antonio Spadaro, S.J., for publication in Jesuit journals worldwide (Am., 9/30/13) reveals the foundation of the pope’s outlook on his life and his office. His approach to issues that come before him is genuine; his responses are authentic, not calculated to please or punish but rather to reflect the Gospel. His acknowledgement of his need for redemption endears him to all. When Father Spadaro asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Francis said: “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” He is like us, and yet Pope Francis stands apart as a singularly blessed and powerful witness of Jesus Christ. His own joy in the Gospel offers to all a future filled with hope.