When the College of Cardinals entered into the conclave on Tuesday afternoon, March 12, 2013, the excitement and expectation were palpable. With the “Habemus Papam” the following afternoon came the name of a stranger, and outsider, who instantly won over the crowd in the Piazza and the entire world with the words, “Fratelli e Sorelle, buona sera!” (Brothers and sisters, good evening!) Who would believe a pontificate beginning with those simple, common words? Never in my wildest imaginings did I expect a Pope to be called Francis! Nor could I comprehend the scene of well over one hundred thousand cheering people suddenly becoming still and silent as Papa Franceso bowed and asked them to pray for him and pray over him. It was the most moving moment I have ever experienced at a Vatican celebration. His words “Pray for me…” still resound in my ears.
From the very first moments, Pope Francis stressed his role with the ancient title of “bishop of Rome” who presides in charity, echoing the famous statement of Ignatius of Antioch. Francis has brought to the papacy a knack for significant gestures that immediately convey very powerful messages.
The gaze of the Lord
When Francis offers a spiritual self-portrait through the unprecedented interview he gave to Jesuit publications last September, he describes himself as standing under the gaze of Christ. “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” The pope illustrates this gaze of Christ by referring to Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew,” a painting he had often contemplated in the Roman Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.
Pope Francis’ gestures and simple words flow from his episcopal and now papal motto: “miserando atque eligendo.” Jesus’ gaze of merciful tenderness (miserando), shows this patience of God which is God’s response to human weakness. Taken from St. Bede’s commentary on the call of Matthew – these words of his motto express Jesus’ whole approach to people – having mercy on others and inviting them (eligendo) to follow him. Such are the bare essentials of the Christian faith. Standing before the face of Christ is a call to repentance, to conversion of life. Francis’ rhetoric both attracts and perplexes us. He invites us to undergo reform by standing under the gaze of Christ. In the transforming light of that face, the Lord has mercy on us and calls us!
A new way of speaking
Now one year after that momentous election in the Sistine Chapel in Rome on March 13, 2013, let us take stock of what has happened and consider some of the new directions for the Church emerging from Rome in this quiet, Franciscan revolution that is sweeping across the face of the earth. Let us recall some of the expressions, words, phrases, and exclamations spoken by the Bishop of Rome that have reverberated across the face of the earth over the past year.
“How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor!”
“Priests must be shepherds with the smell of the sheep.”
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! Even the atheists. Everyone!”
“We have fallen into a “globalization of indifference.”
“Who am I to judge?”
“I want things messy and stirred up in the church. I want the church to take to the streets!”
“I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
“The papal apartment is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight.”
“I see the Church as a field hospital after battle.”
“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
“God never tires of forgiving us.”
“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.”
“I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.”
“An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral.”
“I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization.”
“Mercy is the greatest of all virtues.”
“The confessional must not be a torture chamber.”
“The Church is not a tollhouse.”
“I beg you bishops, avoid the scandal of being airport bishops!”
“We need to promote a culture of encounter.”
“Mary, a woman, is more important than bishops.”
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
Pope Francis startled the world on Monday, July 8 last year when he traveled rather spontaneously to the island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily- to that dangerous area were so many refugees have lost and continue to lose their lives in their journeys to freedom and safety. The Holy Father’s voice rang out across the sea:
“The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!”
Francis is speaking powerfully to each of us about how we let patterns of materialism captivate our lives and distort our humanity. The pope disarmingly makes us deeply uncomfortable in a way that allows us to recognize and confront the alienation from our own humanity that occurs when we seek happiness in objects rather than in relationship with God and others.
While two major documents are attributed to him- the “four handed” encyclical “Lumen Fidei” and the astounding Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” it is the probably the widely circulated photo of the Bishop of Rome embracing and kissing a man with a disfigured face that may be considered his real, profound message and signal to the world that was sent to all the bishops and their entire flocks. In this image we get a an HD image of the tenor which Francis wishes to set for the world Church: a Church of tenderness, mercy, welcome, and a true “culture of encounter.”
Francis is the first Pope from the developing world and he brings a degree of credibility on matters of economic justice that otherworld leaders lack. That’s not merely because of his origins, but because of his lifestyle choices in favor of simplicity and humility. He walks his talk and walks the walk. The pope’s messages on the need for ethics in economic life are not conservative or liberal, but Catholic. They are not socialist or capitalist, but Christian. He calls for a church ‘of and for the poor’ that is not turned in on itself, but ‘in the streets.’ Francis has lived the church’s social teaching in his own ministry so he speaks confidently and bluntly on its demands. To be a church for the poor, the Church must elevate the issue of poverty to the very top of its political agenda, establishing poverty alongside abortion as the pre-eminent moral issues the Catholic community pursues at this moment in our national histories. Each of those issues, poverty and abortion, constitute an assault on the very core of the dignity of the human person.
Where does Francis want to lead the church? What does he want the bishops to do? What does he expect of us, ordained ministers? And what is he modeling for laymen and women? Francis wants the Church to be a reconciler and a means of reconciliation. For Francis, faith enters the church through the heart of the poor, not through the heads of intellectuals. Francis confessed: “perhaps we have reduced our way of speaking about mystery to rational explanations, but for ordinary people the mystery enters through the heart.” He knows only too well that at times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity. He argues that the message should be kept simple.
Using the Gospel story of Emmaus very frequently, Francis talked to the bishops last July in Brazil about people who have left the church because they “now think that the church — their Jerusalem — can no longer offer them anything meaningful and important.” We need a church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a church capable of entering into their conversation. Are we still a church capable of warming hearts? A church capable of leading people back to Jerusalem? Of bringing them home? Jerusalem is where our roots are: Scripture, catechesis, sacraments, community, friendship with the Lord, Mary and the apostles. … Are we still able to speak of these roots in a way that will revive a sense of wonder at their beauty?
The Popes of our times
In Francis, we experience once again the warm, paternal embrace of Blessed John XXIII, the clarity and kindness of Paul VI, the contagious smile of John Paul I, the boldness and courage of Blessed John Paul II, and the firmness and gentleness of faith of Benedict. With Benedict XVI, the plea was for reason and faith and how they need one another to make sense. Human reason without religious faith becomes skepticism and religion shorn of the self-critical capacity of human reason becomes fundamentalism and extremism.
What has happened in the church, and how can it be that a 77-year-old, retirement-bound archbishop from Buenos Aires has captivated the world? How can we describe the sense of springtime that has come upon the church? How is it fathomable in our day and age that not only Christians and Catholics but millions of others are speaking about “Papa Francesco” as if he were their own?
Is this all the work of a PR company or clever media strategists hired by the Vatican and frantically working behind the scenes to rebrand its image? Or is there something else at work? Let me tell you what I think is afoot. Jorge Mario Bergoglio took the name Francis upon his election as Pope and told us he did so because of his love for Francis of Assisi. For the past year, many of us have been associating the Pope’s gestures and actions with the “Poverello” or “Little Poor One” of Assisi, perhaps the most beloved saint of the Catholic tradition.
We can easily envision Francis of Assisi in that idyllic, medieval Umbrian hilltop town and mythologize about what really happened back in his day. But too often Francis’ radical message is lost and we reduce him to a gentle, whimsical hippie who fed birds, smelled flowers and tamed wild wolves. We easily forget that in reality, Assisi’s favorite son was and is the model of a radical Christian.
One day as a young man, Francis heard the plea of Jesus from the crucifix in the dilapidated San Damiano chapel on Assisi’s outskirts. “Go and repair my Church,” he heard Jesus say. And he certainly did that in his lifetime and through the huge Franciscan family that he left behind to carry forward his dream and continue his work.
We become easily fixated on lots of eye-catching, buzz-causing externals and great photo opportunities: A Pope who abandoned the red shoes – that were never an official part of the papal wardrobe! A Pope who dresses modestly, pays his own lodging bills, drives around Vatican City in a Ford Focus, calls many people on the phone, brings jam sandwiches to on-duty Swiss Guards at his door and invites street people to his birthday breakfast. This Roman pontiff specializes in kissing babies and embracing the sick, disfigured broken bodies, and the abandoned of society. We sit back, smile and utter: “What simplicity!” “Wow!” Awesome!” “Finalmente!”
Everything the Pope is doing now is not just an imitation of his patron saint who loved the poor, embraced lepers, charmed sultans, made peace and protected nature. It’s a reflection of the child of Bethlehem who would grow up to become the man of the cross in Jerusalem, the Risen One that no tomb could contain, the man we Christians call Savior and Lord. Pope Francis has given us a powerful glimpse into the mind and heart of God.
On the late afternoon of March 13, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio received the call to go, rebuild, repair, renew and heal the church. What we have witnessed over the past eleven months is simply a disciple of Jesus, and a faithful disciple of Ignatius of Loyola and of Francis of Assisi, repairing, renewing, restoring, reconciling and healing the Church. There are those who delight in describing the new Pope as a bold, brazen revolutionary sent to rock the boat. Others think he has come to cause a massive shipwreck. But the only revolution that Pope Francis has inaugurated is a revolution of tenderness, the very words he used in his recent major letter on “The Joy of the Gospel.” [Evangelii Gaudium #88]
It is this revolution that is at the heart and soul of Pope Francis’ ministry. It is his unflinching freedom that allows him to do what he does because he is unafraid and totally free to be himself at the same time of being such faithful son of the Church. It is his goodness, joy, kindness and mercy that introduce us to the tenderness of our God. No wonder why he has taken the world by storm, and why so many people are paying attention to him. No wonder why magazines and newspapers acclaim him as “Person of the Year”, “best Dressed man,” “Rolling Stone” icon and “Advocate” champion, to name but a few! We need the Francis revolution of tenderness and mercy now more than ever before.
Francis, Bishop of Rome, reminds us each day of the words of his predecessor Blessed John over 50 years ago at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council: “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the Deposit of Faith is one thing, and the way it is presented is another.” With Pope Francis, it’s the same story we have heard for ages, but my God, how the packaging has indeed changed! Now wonder why the world has noticed, listened, and is taking to heart what this man from the ends of the earth is teaching us!
(all photos courtesy of CNS)