“Pope Francis is popular but not a populist,” prominent Argentinean theologian says

Pope Francis greets children outside Our Lady Queen of Angels School in the East Harlem area of New York Sept. 25, 2015 (CNS photo/Eric Thayer).   Pope Francis greets children outside Our Lady Queen of Angels School in the East Harlem area of New York Sept. 25, 2015 (CNS photo/Eric Thayer).

“Pope Francis is popular, but he is not a populist,” Father Carlos Galli, dean of the faculty of theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina in Buenos Aires, says in an interview with America on the fourth anniversary of the election of Francis as pope.

He says:

It’s necessary to distinguish popular from populist. Francis is popular but not a populist. He is popular because he understands the church, together with the Second Vatican Council, as the pilgrim People of God. He loves the People of God and the peoples of the world. He is popular because of his way of being warm and close to people. In him, we see the affective culture and gestures of the Latin American peoples. When at the end of his first Mass after being elected pope, in the parish of Santa Ana in the Vatican, he came out to greet the people, he was just doing what most priests in Latin America do after Mass. Francis is popular because he speaks in a simple, straightforward way, and people say, “I understand this pope.”

“A populist, on the other hand, is a rhetorical demagogue who pitches slogans and simplifies things to convert them into mottos which permit him to manipulate the people,” according to this prominent Argentine theologian.

Father Galli, a member of the International Theological Commission, has known the pope for over 30 years, and, in this interview, he reflects on Francis’ first four years as leader of the Catholic world and mentions some things he would like to see him do in the next four years.

What do you see as Francis’ main achievement in his first four years as pope?

He has initiated a new phase of the reform of the Catholic Church in accordance with the Gospel and in line with the Second Vatican Council. He understands his pontificate as being in continuity with that council, which was God’s great gift to the church in the 20th century and is its compass for the 21st. As a pastoral and ecumenical council, Vatican II promoted the reform or renewal of the church, and, in its “Decree on Ecumenism,” stated: “Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth. The Church is always in need of this, in so far as she is an institution of men here on earth (No. 6).”

Pope Francis takes all this on board in “The Joy of the Gospel,” his programmatic document, to emphasize that the church must be always in a state of reform.

How does he understand this reform?

He sees it as basically a transformation through which the church seeks to configure itself better to Jesus Christ. For him, the Gospel is the first pole of this transformation, and, in his writing and discourses, he insists on the urgency for the church “to renew itself from the original freshness of the Gospel,” “to live the Gospel without gloss, without commentary” and “to renew ourselves in the joy of the Gospel.” The second pole is to be ever more faithful to Christ in the “today” of history. This requires an actualization, [an] updating of the historical figure of the church, a renewal by discerning the signs of the times, to promote new attitudes so as to carry out better the evangelizing mission.

In this sense, Francis’ reform can be defined by the two dynamics that influenced the renewal of the church and the theology of Vatican II: the return to the sources and the updating (“aggiornamento”) that John XXIII spoke about.

In his interview with El País, Francis said he does not see himself as a reformer or revolutionary pope but considers Paul VI as the reformer, and yet he is carrying out a major reform of the Roman Curia and the universal church.

Francis is promoting the reform of the church from the paradigm of “missionary conversion,” a conversion that means a return to God, to Christ, to the Gospel and a mission that speaks about going out to announce the Gospel to persons and to peoples and especially to the peripheries. He is seeking a reform that makes the church more faithful to Christ, a reform to serve the human being better, a reform aimed at mission.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio has always identified himself as a Jesuit, and for him being Jesuit means being someone who is essentially missionary.

Remember, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has always identified himself as a Jesuit, and for him being Jesuit means being someone who is essentially missionary. But he notes that this starting point is not just valid for Jesuits, it’s valid for all believers because, as Vatican II stated clearly, “the pilgrim church is missionary by her very nature” (“Ad Gentes,” No. 2). Francis said he wrote “The Joy of the Gospel” to all the members of the church “with the aim of encouraging ongoing missionary renewal” (“Laudato Si’,” No. 3).

He keeps pushing this reform, as we saw at the Synod on the Family, but there is resistance.

Yes, he keeps asking bishops and priests to continually identify themselves with the sentiments and attitudes of Jesus the Good Shepherd who gave his life for his sheep. One of these attitudes is to draw close to everyone; to go out to encounter the other where that person is, and how that person is, not where or how I think that person should be. When Francis speaks about the church “going out,” he is echoing what Vatican II says about the church’s essential missionary nature. He summarizes what this entails in “Amoris Laetitia,” chapter 8, by using three verbs: “accompany, discern, integrate.”

One of the forms of resistance to Francis comes from not letting ourselves be evangelized by a merciful God who calls us to conversion and to be merciful as God is merciful to us. To be merciful implies to think of pastoral plans to accompany, discern and integrate others. But perhaps we are little accustomed to accompanying others, instead, we are much better at telling or indicating what they should do. Nor are we accustomed to discerning the complexity of each particular case, rather we are more comfortable giving clear prescriptions, forgetting that we are called to love and to reach out to each and every one.

Are there some big issues that you think Francis needs to address in a decisive way over the next four years?

I think he must consolidate what he is doing in the church and in the world today.

Ecclesial eurocentrism began to end with the election of Francis as bishop of Rome.

First, he must give a greater protagonist role to the local churches, especially to those in the south of the world: Latin America, Asia, and Africa. He is the first pope not only from the south but from the south of the south. This presents a difficulty for many of our European brothers to whom Latin Americans owe respect and gratitude for having given us the faith. But one can no longer think that Europe continues to be at the center. Political eurocentrism began to decline with the end of World War II in 1945. Cultural eurocentrism began to decline with the emergence of cultures in the 1960s. Ecclesial eurocentrism began to end with the election of Francis as bishop of Rome. His election is not the only sign of this; we have also seen for the first time in history the election of a non-European, Father Arturo Sosa from Venezuela, as superior general of the Jesuits.

These are only signs, but they are signs that the church has grown and is growing in the south of the world. One fact is sufficient to illustrate this: In 1910, 70 percent of baptized Catholics lived in the north of the world, but by 2010, some 68 percent of Catholics lived in the south of the world. Just over 23 percent live in Europe, while 39 percent are in Latin America, 16 percent in Africa and 12 percent in Asia.

How do you interpret these demographic facts?

They indicate the need for a cultural change and demand the opening of different paths for the church.

Like it or not, the church of the south has come of age, to the point that for the first time the Successor of Peter is from the south. This needs to be well understood, but some are not willing or able to do so, and as a result, there is some resistance.

It’s necessary to remain open to what God is doing in history, and this comes by being attentive to the concrete composition of the people of God and, from there, of the college of bishops and the College of Cardinals and of the successor of Peter. Francis is seeking to make the College of Cardinals more representative of the world’s Catholics, to reflect the intercultural Catholicity of the church.

Up to now, Europeans have had the majority in the conclaves, but, as he told El País, he hopes the next one will be “a Catholic conclave.” It’s fitting therefore to ask the question: How many of the next 10 popes will come from America, Asia or Africa?

What else would you like to see Francis doing in the next four years?

He must continue with the reform of the whole church and the structures of its central government—the Roman Curia—so that it may be a church that is poorer and for the poor. Aware of the “liquid” nature of human bonds both in the forms of communication and in all other dimensions of life, Francis constantly insists on a faith that is concrete.

He invites people to “touch the flesh of Christ in the other, in the neighbor, in the concrete brother.” He reminds us that at the heart of our faith is the Gospel truth that, as St. John says, “the Word became flesh” and that God did not just become man but in Christ he also became poor, as St. Paul says.

Francis insists that this poverty of God is at the heart of our faith. Ten years ago, at the Fifth General Conference of the Latin America and Caribbean Bishops, in Aparecida, Brazil, Cardinal Bergoglio was elected president of the commission that drafted its final document, which reaffirmed the Latin American church’s option for the poor as it had done in Medellín (1968), Puebla (1979) and Santa Domingo (1992), but also went further by insisting on the Christocentric origin and content of that option.

As pope, Francis developed this idea in chapter 6 of “The Joy of the Gospel” where he addresses the contemporary challenge of the inclusion of the poor and affirms that the poor are in the heart of God and in the heart of the church and recalls that at the end of our lives we will all be judged by the protocol that is found in chapter 25 of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. In my view, this chapter 6 of “The Joy of the Gospel” is the most significant ever written by a pope on Christ, the church and the poor.

But there is resistance to Francis’ message of conversion to the Gospel of the poor and love for the poor because it demands a radical change of outlook and of attitude in the style of life and comfort of powerful social groups.

What else would you like Francis to do in the next four years?

I would like him to intensify his efforts and those of the Holy See in favor of justice, peace and the care of our common home. And given today’s international situation, he must continue to give priority to migrants, refugees and displaced persons and help to build a culture of encounter—“bridges not walls”—at the national and international levels of society.

Francis is particularly sensitive to this issue. His first journey as pope was to the island of Lampedusa. He began his visit to Mexico in Chiapas and ended it in Ciudad Juarez at the border with the United States. And in the Vatican, he has established a special unit dedicated to migrants, refugees and displaced persons which responds directly to him.

For him this is a priority, as he made clear last November in Rome, in his talk to the Third World Encounter of Popular Movements where he reminded everyone that “all walls fall. All of them. Let us not be deceived. Let us continue working to build bridges between peoples, bridges that allow us to pull down the walls of exclusion and exploitation. Let us face terror with love.”

But again, there is resistance and in some places strong resistance.

You have known him for over 30 years, you have worked with him and met him many times, also since his election. What strikes you most about him now that he is pope?

Joy and peace. Joy is the key to his pontificate. He insists on it in his three major documents—“Evangelii Gaudium,” “Laudato Si’” and “Amoris Laetitia”—and in his talk to the 36th General Congregation of the Jesuits. This insistence on joy is an underlying theme of contemporary Catholicism, starting with John XXIII’s address at the opening of Vatican II and that council’s document on the church in the modern world, “Gaudium et Spes.”

Secondly, as pope, he has the virtue of hope that enables him to open new paths, the charism to discern the voice of the Spirit in the cries of peoples, the capacity for work and fortitude in the face of challenges, difficulties, resistances. He is carrying out a reform of the universal church through the synodal processes. He has an acute sense of time and knows this is the God given moment (Kairos) to do this reform. Filled with hope, he relies on God and cultivates the virtues involving fortitude: perseverance, patience, magnanimity, audacity. He is very prudent, and, above all, he is merciful, because he knows that we live from the gift of God’s mercy.

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