This is a in the special commemorative issue of America celebrating Pope Francis and his five groundbreaking years. Purchase a copy of Pope Francis: Five Groundbreaking Years here.
Pope Francis has been a remarkable pontiff by almost any measure, one who may well rank among the most consequential in the long and colorful history of the papacy. That judgment might even be shared by his detractors, if for different reasons from those of his far more numerous supporters, who welcome Francis’ passionate promotion of a more pastoral, less legalistic Catholicism.
But five years after Francis’ clamorous election, the source of this acclaim remains a matter of much debate. And at this milestone, perhaps a more important question arises: Is there anything beyond this personal appeal that can outlast Francis himself? What has he really changed, and what is to prevent another pope from undoing those changes? Many of the factors that have fueled the public’s fascination with Francis are relatively easy to spot, and they start with the novelty and surprise of his election on March 13, 2013.
The Keys of Peter
We love anything that seems unprecedented, and the conclave of 2013 had plenty of “firsts.” Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was, for example, the first pope in history to call himself Francis, taking the name of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most popular and recognizable saints ever, whose life of poverty and love of the poor, of peace and of all creation make him a beloved icon—yet not exactly a traditional papal role model.
Francis was also the first pope ever from outside the European orbit, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, from “the ends of the earth,” as he put it in his plainspoken opening remarks to the crowd gathered on a drizzly evening in St. Peter’s Square. He was also the first Jesuit pope, a miracle of its own for anyone who knows the history of relations between the Society of Jesus and the papacy. And Francis followed the first pope to resign the Chair of Saint Peter in some six centuries. That is a lot of novelty; and even in a modern world addicted to regular jolts of “breaking news” and hyped headlines, these developments stood out as truly momentous.
The narrative of change did not end with Francis’ election night appearance, but continued as the new pope was photographed paying his own hotel bill and then moving permanently into the modest Vatican guest residence rather than living in the sumptuous apostolic palace. Other anecdotes reinforced the storyline: Francis calling his cobbler in Argentina to ask him to repair his battered old pair of shoes; Francis visiting a Roman optometrist to get a new pair of specs rather than having the shopkeeper come to him; Francis cold-calling people around the world; Francis giving interviews willy-nilly and so on. One urban legend even had it that Francis sneaked out of the Vatican at night to aid Rome’s homeless. It wasn’t true, but that hardly mattered.
Francis may well rank among the most consequential popes in the long and colorful history of the papacy.
The sheer surprise of Francis’ election was also a factor. John Paul II had been pope for 26 years at the time of his death, and his doctrinal wingman, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was elected to succeed him in 2005 as Benedict XVI. The combined pontificates represented 35 years of a traditional reorientation in the church, and those two popes had named all of the 113 cardinals who went into the 2013 conclave
Yet the Holy Spirit, who often gets short shrift in the Catholic Church, blows where it will, and the election of Bergoglio was such a surprise it made even the most jaded Vatican-watchers, and more than a few non-Catholics, wonder if there indeed was a new Pentecost in the air.
‘Francis, Rebuild My Church’
But the hallmark of Francis’ papacy, and the source of the gravitational draw of his personality, is not about some tectonic shift in the church. Rather, it is a commitment to reforming the church first in order to serve the flock truly and bear genuine and convincing witness to Christ’s teachings.
In the closed-door meetings leading up to the voting in the Sistine Chapel, each cardinal had five minutes to speak on what he saw as the needs of the church and, by extension, the sort of pope who should be elected to lead it. More than 200 men were eligible to deliver these brief manifestos. Of course, many went over their allotted time, making the speechifying a tad stultifying at times.
hen his turn came, Cardinal Bergoglio got straight to the point, using less than his allotted five minutes to deliver a simple but electrifying speech calling on the church “to come out of herself” and cure herself of a “theological narcissism” that has left Catholicism unable to evangelize. “In Revelation, Jesus says that he is at the door and knocks,” Bergoglio told his fellow electors. “Obviously, the text refers to his knocking from the outside in order to enter. But I think about the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out. The self-referential Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him out.”
In short, he said, the church has a choice: to come out of herself and evangelize, being true to the Gospel imperative, or to remain closed within herself and “sick.”
After a 24-hour conclave, the cardinal-electors overwhelmingly chose Bergoglio to be the next pope and fulfill the blueprint he laid out. And that’s what he has done, by reaching out to the margins, to those who are suffering or are outside the corridors of power—in the church or in the wider world. He has emphasized doing over talking, evoking his namesake’s (probably apocryphal) admonition to his followers: “Always preach the Gospel; use words if you have to.”
A Pope the Times Require
Cardinal Kevin Farrell—whom Francis, in one of his many surprise moves, called to Rome from the Diocese of Dallas to take a senior curial post in 2016—gave a talk at Boston College in 2017 in which he characterized the last three popes as a “triptych” of styles. Cardinal Farrell, who heads the newly created Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, said that John Paul “worked to describe and codify what the church teaches and lives.” John Paul wanted a new catechism, for example, and an overhaul of the Code of Canon Law. Benedict “wanted to describe what we believe and why we believe,” Farrell said. As for Francis: “I believe Francis works tirelessly every day not to codify, not to explain what we believe, but how we are to live what we believe. That’s what Francis tries to live.”
And that is why Francis demands that he himself, and his fellow clergy—bishops and cardinals first—set the example. That is also why this kindly, avuncular and fun-loving pontiff is at his sternest when addressing other members of the hierarchy. They must avoid “rivalry, jealousy and factions” and reject the “habits and ways of acting typical of a court: intrigue, gossip, cliques, favoritism and preferences.” And in all things they must not be rigid moralists using doctrine to punish a captive flock but rather humble and merciful and self-sacrificing pastors going out to find the one lost sheep, going out to the margins to accompany those in need. It’s not just what pastors must do; it is what will wind up saving them, and the church.
Indeed, another way of looking at the triptych of the three recent popes is to see John Paul as a great evangelizer, much like Francis, who went everywhere to meet everyone, and did so with great warmth and charm. In fact, those of us who came of age as Catholics during the papacy of the Polish pope can find it amusing to see the great novelty associated with Francis, just as those who recall the enormous affection and acclaim for “Good Pope John” a generation earlier must have wondered what “the John Paul generation” was going on about with their hosannas for the novelty of John Paul’s humanity. Yet for all his efforts at outreach, John Paul always took the church itself as a given. Growing up under Nazism and then Soviet Communism, Karol Wojtyla believed a strong church was one that was united and unassailable, a secure base of operations for evangelization. A church facing a hostile world could not afford to air its internal differences. But that fortress mentality arguably covered for abuses and excused practices that would wind up undermining the very witness that John Paul did so much to burnish.
Francis knows that Catholic identity and practice can no longer be taken for granted.
Benedict XVI was wiser about the need for the church to renew itself. But he insisted that all the tools and traditions were already at hand. He had neither the energy nor the administrative skill to open the church to reform and instead sought to highlight tradition and beauty and liturgy as the irresistible draw that would outshine the church’s obvious flaws. Both John Paul and Benedict, in other words, saw themselves as pastors who went out in order to bring others back to their fold, through their own gate.
Francis, on the other hand, knows that Catholic identity and practice can no longer be taken for granted, and church institutions and establishment mindsets can get in the way more than they can help. Today the church must earn disciples through grassroots evangelizing, and Francis believes the church itself must open up and go out, not just to teach but also to listen and learn. His thinking follows the model of the self-emptying of Christ on the cross: in that same way, the church only truly becomes the church, truly fulfills its mission, by going out of itself, giving of itself freely and fully—a renunciation that, paradoxically, builds up the church.
People are hungry for the “authentic” in anything and especially for leaders who will speak truth to power, even more so when they are the ones who wield that power. For so long church leaders have been seen as pointing the finger of blame at everyone else first—at trends like secularism and relativism and modernism. Now we have a pope who looks at himself and his church as the ones first in need of reform. In the United States especially, as Christianity has come to be associated with the worst aspects of our political culture, such self-examination is especially convincing.
Where Will Francis Lead Us?
But the real question now is: Can it last? Can a movement so identified with one man endure once he leaves the scene?
Prosaic as it sounds, part of the answer lies in the numbers. By the end of 2017, Francis had named just under half of the 120 cardinals who could cast a ballot in the next papal election. A two-thirds supermajority is needed to elect a pope, so it is not as though he has “packed” the College of Cardinals. To be sure, many of the cardinals appointed by Benedict and John Paul are happy about the direction in which Francis is taking the church. But others are dismayed, to say the least, and still others are perhaps unnerved by the tumult that has been stirred by Francis’ critics and may want a compromise candidate as his successor, someone less prone to stirring the pot. On the other hand, a principal dynamic at work in the 2013 conclave—an effort by a large majority of the cardinals, whatever their orientation, to rebalance the power equation between the Vatican and local dioceses—endures and could play a central role again.
By the end of 2017, Francis had named just under half of the 120 cardinals who could cast a ballot in the next papal election.
But the most convincing reason to believe that the course Francis has embarked on will continue after him is that he is not, in fact, the one who set this course, nor, despite the appearance of unending novelty, is this change unique to him. When John XXIII launched the Second Vatican Council back in 1962, he famously denounced the “prophets of doom” and hailed history as “the great teacher of life,” convening a council that was profoundly pastoral in nature, but one that also grew out of a theological ferment that had been brewing for decades—and that continued after he died.
Paul VI, who succeeded John, is arguably Francis’ closest role model as pope, and Francis has shown that by repeatedly citing Paul and in particular by praising his landmark exhortation “Evangelii Nuntiandi” (1975), in which Paul writes that “the Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself.”
“Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses,” Paul wrote. “It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus—the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity.”
The Pilgrim Way
Picking up that narrative, Francis has said that Catholics today must realize that “we are not living an era of change, but a change of era.” Catholics must also realize that this shift, and the pastoral response to it by the church, did not start on March 13, 2013. Nor will it cease when the now 81-year-old Francis departs, by death or resignation. “We are at the half-way point of the pastoral conversion,” Francis has said, a phrase that shows how he perceives his own place and the sense of history that had often been obscured since Vatican II—history not as nostalgia for a tradition we look back to, but as a base from which we push forward into the future with faith.
Francis, like the council, does not represent a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” as Benedict XVI warned in his Christmas address to the Roman Curia in 2005. Rather, Francis is a man of Vatican II who represents what Benedict called the “hermeneutic of reform” and “renewal in the continuity” of the council. As Francis said in a homily a month after his election, Catholics must be wary of trying to “calm” the Holy Spirit because it “upsets us” by pushing the church forward. The reaction against the spirit of the council is a prime example of that fear and resistance, he said.
Francis reminds us that the church is always immersed in history. The next pope may not be another Francis. But the church he leads, and serves, will continue along its pilgrim way.
This is the introduction to the special commemorative issue of America celebrating Pope Francis and his five groundbreaking years. Purchase a copy of Pope Francis: Five Groundbreaking Years here.