From Benedict to Francis: The former Vatican spokesperson looks back

Pope Francis with Federico Lombardi, S,J., his Vatican spokesperson, on Sept. 11, 2014 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

The following text is adapted from The Russo Lecture, given at Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture in New York on May 15, 2018, by Federico Lombardi, S.J. Father Lombardi is the president of the Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation. He served for many years as the Vatican spokesperson for Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, as well as the director of Vatican Radio and the Vatican Television Center.

I am grateful to share with you some considerations arising from my experience of service to the Holy See and in particular to the last two popes, for whom I have had the privilege of fulfilling the tasks of director of the Press Office and Vatican Radio. Benedict XVI and Francis are persons whom I love and deeply admire, as pastors and as men of faith. It is therefore with joy that I continue to think of the time I lived with them and worked for them. I try to discover ever more deeply the significance of their work and to present to those who wish it the fruit of my reflections.

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"Benedict XVI and Francis are persons whom I love and deeply admire, as pastors and as men of faith."

'I am a son of the church'

One of the questions that I have often been asked about Pope Francis concerns the novelty of his doctrinal positions. On several occasions, especially on the occasion of the well-known airborne chats with journalists on flights returning from long journeys, colleagues asked him questions about particularly “hot-button” issues, such as his position on gays or his criticisms of the prevailing economic system. He decided with great determination to make explicit reference to the consolidated teaching of the church, quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church on a number of occasions.

I will give some examples:

Q. Why did you not talk about abortion and marriage between persons of the same sex? A. Because the church has already expressed herself perfectly on this. It was not necessary to go back there, just as I did not talk about fraud, lying or other things on which the church has a clear doctrine!

Q. But what is your position? A. That of the church. I am a son of the church.

Q. About gays what do you say? A. I repeat what the Catechism says: that they should not be discriminated against, that they must be respected, accompanied pastorally. The Catechism is clear!

Q. And speaking of the economic system, do you think that the church will follow you in this, with hand outstretched to the popular movements? A. It is I who follow the church, because I simply preach the social doctrine of the church to these movements, the same as I do with the business world. It is not a hand outstretched to an enemy; it is a fact of Christian catechesis. I want this to be clear.

Q. There are those who speak of the ‘Communist Pope.’ What do you think? A. I am sure that I have not said one thing more than that which is in the social doctrine of the church.... And if you want me to recite the Creed, I am willing to do it.

In short, my view is that the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both of whom participated in the [Second Vatican] Council and worked together for over 20 years, brought a great contribution: They have consolidated and deepened our understanding of doctrine, regarding the foundations of the Second Vatican Council and regarding many issues made urgent by today’s cultural evolution. They gave us a considerable number of important magisterial documents. We can speak of a broad and organic corpus, which is expressed in a concise but effective manner in the two remarkable summary documents: The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

This is a solid foundation that Francis has no intention of putting into question in its substance. Indeed, precisely because he feels himself so squarely and stably “on the shoulders of the giants,” he thinks he can and must look forward and launch new messages.

The grace of this pontificate

The novelty of this pontificate is therefore not to be found in its doctrinal dimension but rather in its pastoral-missionary perspective and in its radically evangelical inspiration. From the beginning, in his pontificate’s “manifesto”—that is, in the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium”—Pope Francis speaks of a “missionary transformation of the Church” starting from the “heart of the Gospel” and says that the proclamation, if it is to reach all “without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.”

"Pope Francis does not address himself only or even primarily to the faithful, to people who frequent the church, but to all without exception, trusting that God can speak to and touch the heart of every human person."

Already the council spoke to us of the importance of the “hierarchy of truths,” that is, of knowing how to distinguish and put in right order what is most fundamental and what is less so. Francis does this very clearly when he sees the center, the “heart of the Gospel,” in the message of mercy and forgiveness. He is not afraid to repeat it with insistence, finding new ways and opportunities to repropose this message in word and gesture, with homilies in Santa Marta, with the Jubilee of Mercy, with his “Mercy Fridays.” I gladly mention those last, because they are a creative way to give concrete and current example of the “works of mercy”: dedicating one Friday afternoon each month to visit the sick, the poor, the handicapped, the elderly and also people who just need to feel accepted and loved in the church, like the former priests with their families.

Of course, we know well that Pope Francis did not discover the theme of mercy. It is woven into all of Holy Scripture, beginning with the Old Testament. Recent popes have preached and spoken of mercy repeatedly and with great passion. The growing concentration on this “heart of the Gospel” is, however, significant. Benedict XVI, in a beautiful interview given after his renunciation, spoke of it as a “sign of the times.”

Pope Francis does not address himself only or even primarily to the faithful, to people who frequent the church, but to all without exception, trusting that God can speak to and touch the heart of every human person. The style of his preaching and of his life, characterized by a “closeness”—one evident to ordinary people and completely spontaneous—through concrete language, ordinary everyday gestures, a modest car without special armor, his refusal of any distance or physical barriers between him and the people: All this corresponds perfectly to the content of the message of God’s love—a love that wants to reach everyone—and becomes an integral part of this message.

Indeed, in the first years of this pontificate, we saw in Francis a charisma capable of overcoming by leaps the limits his scarce linguistic abilities posed, as well as other even greater cultural distances. In fact, even in travels to Asian countries the attraction of his presence has been surprising. I am convinced that in this case it is not only the charm of a great popular communicator, but that there is really something much more important: the widespread perception that he is the bearer of a response to deep expectations, a response that comes from above, even if it is embodied in simple and direct words and in immediately understandable gestures, which speak even more than words. As Pope Benedict has well understood, “mercy” is the word that best expresses this.

Many—among the practicing faithful, among those who have turned away from the church and among those who have never been part of it—have had their hearts touched by a word of comfort and hope. Many priests and believers have taken courage and confidence in proclaiming the good news, the Gospel of the Lord. I like to say that this is “the greatest specific grace of this pontificate,” compared to which everything else seems secondary to me.

Reality is better seen from the periphery than from the center.

John Paul II had an expansive vision of the history of the world, of peoples and of the church. The experience of the 20th century, with two world wars, the totalitarian regimes and the Shoah, the division of the world into two blocs and finally the collapse of walls, immersed him in the heart of a dramatic and grandiose affair, which he read with depth and as a man of his time, as a member of a people—the Polish people—and as a believer. What struck me most about him, following him in his travels across the continents, was his ability to address whole peoples, helping them to understand their historical vocation and respond to the challenges of their situation at the time, so as to make their specific contribution to the twin causes of peace and integral development, in the context of what he loved to call the great “family of peoples.”

As a believer, he read the history of the church intimately fused with that of individual peoples and of humanity as a whole and perceived its mission as that of leading the church into the third millennium, across the threshold of the Great Jubilee. He desired that, in the great Jubilee Year of 2000, all the experiences and dimensions of life and human activity might be led to rediscover their meaning in light of Jesus Christ. John Paul II opened his momentous and very long pontificate with the words: “Be not afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!” After the Great Jubilee had come and gone, he once again called the church to take heart: “Duc in altum!” “Set out fearlessly into the deep waters of the new millennium.”

Benedict XVI found himself dealing with a time that did not encourage great enthusiasm. The new millennium, which unfortunately opened with the terrible attack on the Twin Towers in New York, has continued with new conflicts and economic and environmental crises that test our optimism, exposing many dangers and much darkness in the process of globalization. Meanwhile, technological and cultural transformations profoundly affect the vision of the human person in the world, calling into question many of our shared moral values.

As a man of faith and intellect, Benedict saw his mission as consisting in constantly and patiently reproposing the fundamental points of orientation: God, the God of whom the Bible speaks, a God who is at the same time Logos, creative reason, and love. He reproposed the value of truth against the “dictatorship of relativism” and the duty of human reason to seek the truth and keep its desire alive. He insisted on the human capacity to find the truth even if in partial form, and so he invited all of us to dialogue and reasonable coexistence, despite our cultural and religious differences.

As a man of faith and intellect, Pope Benedict XVI saw his mission as consisting in constantly and patiently reproposing the fundamental points of orientation: God, the God of whom the Bible speaks, a God who is at the same time Logos, creative reason, and love.

Francis, because of his origin, naturally brings a different perspective, which negates none of Benedict’s insights but makes possible a revival of the church’s service in the world with a new dynamic. The first Latin American pope enjoys a favorable “geopolitical-spiritual” premise: He is exempt from the weight of biases or prejudice—conscious or unconscious—that might otherwise be present due to the history of colonialism and the various forms of political, military, economic and cultural imperialism.

This premise has influenced not only his favorable reception in Asia or Africa but also in Europe itself, where his speeches to the European Parliament and to the Council of Europe were received with great attention, not to mention those he gave in Washington, D.C., and New York, where the reception and attention to his visit were very high, so much so as to eclipse media coverage of the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping that took place in the same days. Paradoxically, coming “from the ends of the earth,” as he himself said on the evening of his election, allowed him to address the world with more freedom and authority than anyone from the “center of the world” regions.

Francis gave a very effective image of this new perspective when—in one of his interviews—he spoke of the “gaze of Magellan.” He said: “Europe seen from Madrid in the 16th century was one thing, but when Magellan arrived at the end of the American continent and looked at Europe, from there he understood something different. The reality is seen better from the periphery than from the center[.]”

Indeed, Francis’s mode of speech is different from that of his predecessors and is more appropriate to the new situation. He does not deny anything that his predecessors have said and emphasized on the European cultural and spiritual crisis; indeed, in a certain sense he assumes it, but he changes the point of view: It is no longer one from within Europe itself. Europe is questioned by an outside-in perspective, and Francis expresses amazement and concern for what appears: something sterile, frightened, closed, parched and poised precariously—in order to challenge it to come out of itself and be once again a foundation and school of humanism for the world.

The principle that “reality is better seen from the periphery than from the center” becomes for Francis a key to understanding today’s world as a political, economic and social system.

The principle that “reality is better seen from the periphery than from the center” becomes for Francis a key to understanding today’s world as a political, economic and social system with its effects of poverty, marginalization, exploitation of human beings, of destruction of resources and degradation of the natural and urban environment. In a word, a world of waste. We know very well that Francis is continually lashing out against the “throwaway culture,” which follows from the primacy attributed to the economic interest rather than to the dignity of the human person.

There is no doubt that these terrible consequences are felt much more harshly at the periphery than at the center, so from the periphery the gravity of them is understood better; hence from there arises the motivation necessary to react and respond to those terrible consequences. Thus, Francis gives voice and encouragement to popular movements, so that they, too, become more and more protagonists of the construction of a more just, humane and supportive world, without leaving the search for solutions to the centers of national or world governance, which may be bound to their perspective of power and prisoners to their bureaucracy.

The poor through the lens of the Gospel

As I already mentioned, Francis does not feel himself at all to be a social-political revolutionary animated by a leftist ideology, but a catechist of the church’s social teaching. Indeed, he feels himself a proclaimer of that “social dimension of evangelization” to which the whole fourth part of his programmatic manifesto “Evangelii Gaudium” is dedicated. Francis in fact appeals to Benedict, who, speaking to the Latin American bishops gathered in Aparecida, affirmed with all his authority as pastor and theologian that “[the preferential option for the poor] is implicit in our Christian faith in a God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty.”

Perfectly in line with this, Francis says in “Evangelii Gaudium,” “For the Church the option for the poor is a theological category before it is a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one.” We know how strongly Francis repeats these messages by applying them to many of the most burning issues in the world today: migrants, refugees, human trafficking, exploitation of labor, hunger, conflict and violence, corruption and drugs, and more. He speaks from the Gospel and, therefore, from faith, but his faith generates words that truly touch everyone, across every boundary of ethnicity, culture or religion.

Pope Francis does not feel himself at all to be a social-political revolutionary animated by a leftist ideology, but a catechist of the church’s social teaching.

As I see it, there is a characteristic example of how the point of view of the peripheries and the evangelical spirit lead Pope Francis to move the frontier of social teaching forward. It concerns the world of prisons and the penal system, for which we must recognize in Francis an extraordinary attention and commitment, to which his frequent visits to prisons attest, both in Italy and in the different countries of the world to which he travels. The evangelical spirit of the search for a “greater” justice—that of which Matthew speaks in 5:20—pushes us to develop more sensitivity and better arguments for a growing humanization of the penal system. I am thinking not only of Pope Francis’ increasingly explicit position against the death penalty—he has recently come to ask for a change in this sense in the Catechism of the Catholic Church—but also the increasingly explicit rejection of life sentences; this is even more so in the case of minors.

Personally, a few years ago, in 2014, I was the go-between for the extremely touching correspondence between Pope Francis and young Americans sentenced to life imprisonment and at the time confined to juvenile prisons, from whom the pope had received some 500 letters on the initiative of our brother Michael Kennedy, S.J., a juvenile prison chaplain in Los Angeles. With the Gospel in his hands, Francis pushes juridical reason towards a greater justice.

The holy faithful people of God on the way

The pope is above all a pastor of the church, of the community of believers, united in faith in the risen Lord. The church believes that this Lord is alive and accompanies her by continuously giving her his Spirit, who animates her and guides her. If you do not understand this, you cannot understand anything about who the pope is, what he does or why he does it. It is the essential premise—even if one does not share this faith personally—if one desires to correctly interpret the pope and his relationship with the church. Therefore, I firmly assert that the vision and experience of the reality of the church, led by the Spirit of the Lord, is the most profound and powerful element of continuity between the different popes, connecting Benedict and Francis as well, and therefore the key to their interpretation.

In particular, I affirm it decidedly with regard to the story of Benedict’s renunciation. I have been asked countless times and continue to be asked about this renunciation and its motives. With amazement I still occasionally hear that “the real reasons for renunciation” have not yet been given and that future historical research will show them and other similar things.

The vision and experience of the reality of the church, led by the Spirit of the Lord, is the most profound and powerful element of continuity between the different popes, connecting Benedict and Francis as well, and therefore the key to their interpretation.

In my simplicity, I am convinced that when one has to deal with a reasonable person in control of his faculties, the true motives of his actions are those that he knows himself and on the basis of which he decides. I am also absolutely convinced that Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict, is an absolutely sincere, lucid and courageous person and that he is a true believer. Therefore, I am absolutely convinced that the real reasons for his renunciation are those that he expressed publicly before the cardinals gathered in the consistory on Feb.11, 2013, and that—as he has told us many times—he reached by mature reflection and in prayer before God.

Of course, we can talk and speculate as long as we want about the circumstances and the various aspects of the context of renunciation, but if we talk about the real reasons for Pope Benedict’s decision before God, he told us everything we need to know, and if we look for others we are on the wrong path. The reasons he gave are admirably reasonable: the result of a serene discernment of the relationship between the availability of energies and the mission to be accomplished, carried out in presence and in dialogue with the one who had called him to this mission, God. It is very clear, and there is nothing else to look for.

In the time between his renunciation and his leave-taking from his pontifical service, Benedict XVI helped us to understand that in this affair there was nothing that would upset or disorient us, because the church is led by the Spirit of the Lord. He concluded his last public audience in St. Peter’s Square with these words: “God guides his church, he sustains it always, especially at times of difficulty. Let us never lose this vision of faith, which is the one true way of looking at the journey of the church and of the world.”

Pope Benedict XVI: "God guides his church, he sustains it always, especially at times of difficulty. Let us never lose this vision of faith, which is the one true way of looking at the journey of the church and of the world.”

Two weeks later, the new bishop of Rome, who greeted the people of God present in St. Peter’s Square, said, “And now let us begin this journey together, bishop and people,” and before he blessed them, he bowed his head, asking first the blessing of the people upon himself. Those who knew Cardinal Bergoglio heard the echo of his famous homily at Aparecida, where he said: “We do not want to be a self-referential but a missionary church.... We people and we shepherds who make up this holy faithful people of God, who have infallibility in faith, together with the pope: We people and pastors speak on what the Spirit inspires us to speak, and we pray together and build the church together, or rather we are instruments of the Spirit that builds it.”

This conviction in the accompaniment of the Spirit is the explanation of the extraordinary internal dynamics of Francis’ pontificate, of his vision of the church, as well as of his pastoral approach.

As for the church, we now know that one of its key words is “synodality,” that is, walking together. “Together,” because the people of God possess a wealth of component members, all sanctified by the anointing of the Spirit. The implications are many. Francis insists on the point with great strength, even at the price of provoking reactions with his insistence. He continually speaks of authority as a service and not as a power. The shepherd must have “the smell of sheep” and walk in front or behind or in their midst according to the need of the flock. He strongly opposes clericalism, that is, when members of the clergy consider themselves superior to the laity and manifest it in language and attitudes. He insists on respect for women and the greater role that must be recognized for them in the church. The list goes on.

In particular, Francis received from Paul VI and his predecessors that fundamental institution which is the Synod of Bishops, and he immediately undertook to revitalize it. Benedict had included in the plenary gatherings some sessions in which the fathers could speak freely, but it was not enough. Francis has expanded the preparatory consultation and encourages participants to greater freedom of expression, inside and outside the assembly. He gives more space to work in linguistic circles, chooses issues of great pastoral importance, such as the family and young people, without being afraid to face complex and much-debated issues.

Even with the special Pan-Amazonian Synod, we can expect further developments, not only for the new topics discussed but also for the way we treat them. Francis has said many times that he considers it important to set in motion renewal and research processes, even if the steps to take along the way and even the point d’arrivée are not yet clearly defined in detail. This vision is justified because it is based on trust: that the Spirit of the Lord will always accompany those who ask for the Spirit’s assistance and seek it with constancy and humility.

Conversion and purification

A fundamental aspect of the church’s history in recent decades—through several pontificates—is that of the request for forgiveness, for purification, for conversion.

John Paul II approached the threshold of the Great Jubilee with a growing awareness of the sins committed by Christians throughout history, not only as individuals but also as a community. The occasions in which he asked for forgiveness multiplied over the years and involved many dimensions of social and ecclesial life: divisions among Christians, religious wars, injustices and religious and social discrimination, abuses of authority in the doctrinal and disciplinary fields, and so on.

A dear friend of mine, one of the most experienced Italian vaticanisti, Luigi Accattoli, wrote an entire book titled When a Pope Asks Forgiveness, collecting a vast series—94 texts—of public confessions of historical sins of which John Paul II as head of the church assumed co-responsibility in a spirit of solidarity, asking forgiveness and calling us to conversion. This great exercise of “purification of memory,” of the desire for conversion and reconciliation, culminated in the touching penitential jubilee celebration in St. Peter’s with the unforgettable image of Pope St. John Paul II’s embrace and kissing of the feet of the crucifix.

In Benedict XVI’s pontificate, the experience of sin and the need for confession and purification shifted from the past to the present with the shocking emergence of the problem of sexual abuse in the church in all its gravity. Benedict had begun to see the reality during his service to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His famous words—“How much filth there is in the church!”—given in the meditations of the via crucis at the Colosseum on the last Good Friday before his election, struck deeply, but we had not foreseen that he would have had to carry the weight so dramatically during his pontificate. Certainly among the “crosses” of the pontificate, the story of sexual abuse was for him the heaviest and most painful.

We need not talk about it at length, because these things are well known. What I intend to say, however, as a close witness of Benedict’s pontificate is that he—I am convinced—did everything possible to respond to the crisis with honesty and seriousness and to show the right path to the community of the church. He personally met victims on all the trips on which he was asked for such meetings, starting with the United States. He shared his suffering in the first person. He recognized the seriousness of the crime with sincerity and without pleading extenuating circumstances. He revised the canonical norms and procedures against the guilty. He summoned bishops. He made the canonical visits and requested the necessary resignations; he wrote his letter to the Catholics of Ireland, which remains the most complete document for pastoral reflection and orientation. He insisted on the importance of fair selection criteria for the clergy. He laid the foundations for a culture of prevention and protection of minors in the church.

Although aware that the scourge of abuse is widespread throughout society, he never sought to hide or minimize the enormous specific gravity of this crime when committed by church ministers. When Benedict spoke of truth, he did not have only theoretical truth in mind—science and theology—but also the recognition of truth in life. He paid the price and he taught us to pay it, too.

When Pope Benedict XVI spoke of truth, he did not have only theoretical truth in mind—science and theology—but also the recognition of truth in life. He paid the price and he taught us to pay it, too.

This is the true and necessary starting point for every process of restoration of justice, of healing for victims, of conversion, of restoration and inner purification. In conclusion, I am convinced that Benedict has the great merit of having understood the seriousness of this evil and of having correctly set and begun the path of response to this crisis, even if, looking at the worldwide situation, there is still far more road to travel than has been traveled.

Francis therefore found path already trodden, on which he could and should continue. We know that he has taken further steps. For example, he established the Commission for the Protection of Minors presided over by Cardinal Seán O’Malley, who—although not without difficulty—provides effective stimulus to continue the work.

Recently, he has personally become more deeply involved in the dramatic story of the church in Chile, with a courageous recognition of errors he himself made in dealing with it. These are rapidly developing issues, on which cannot yet give an evaluation or an overall reading. I do find it very significant that Francis, in the light of this story, began to talk not only about sexual abuse but also about abuses of power and of conscience. It seems to me, therefore, that the confrontation of evil in the life of the church is broadening and awareness of its complexities and interconnections increasing.

As Francis says clearly in his most recent apostolic exhortation, the story of the church and of humanity continuously flows, like a real struggle, between the two poles of good and evil. To unmask the dark presence of evil with courage and truth, to unmask it in its various forms, to unmask it in its diabolically intelligent use of the new instruments offered by technological progress, is the premise necessary not only for the purification of the church but also for the fundamental service of the church to the purification and rehabilitation of society and of human life, to achieving a good and dignified life for everyone. This is where the Spirit of the Lord wants to lead us.

Discernment and joy

This is precisely the meaning of “discernment,” another of the words that continually returns to Francis’ lips. Discernment means the continuous commitment to distinguish in depth the ways of good from the ways of evil, to seek and find the call and the will of God, the right way among the choices to be made, by both communities and individual persons. Different components contribute to discernment: the voice of the church in its various aspects—Scripture, the authoritative magisterium, councils—but also the personal relationship with God in prayer, through reason and in the conscience of the person.

Pope Francis sees the grave problem of a growing distance between doctrine and life, between doctrine and real pastoral practice.

Francis sees the grave problem of a growing distance between doctrine and life, between doctrine and real pastoral practice. To remedy this he proposes a pastoral care of accompaniment and discernment—the two things go together—to rediscover the meaning and flavor of the Christian life lived daily in responsibility, love and joy. I understand well that many priests and pastoral workers feel almost crushed by the greatness of the challenge: how to be truly close to the experience of individuals so different from each other? How can we not simply propose clear general principles but try to translate them with the nuances required by concrete life, in dialogue with people? Where to find the time and the strength to undertake this journey every day with so many people, so many of whom have little spiritual formation?

Yet it must be recognized that the great fields of family life, of the love between man and woman, of the way young people meet and face the problems of life during their growth, are indeed decisive fields for measuring whether our proposal of the Christian message is capable of penetrating to life’s core where it can be a source of integral salvation, or if it will be definitively discarded by its recipients as meaningless. The pastoral proposal of Francis, therefore, is crucial for the future of the church.

For the Christian, an unmistakable sign of the work of the Spirit is joy coupled with hope. Benedict developed throughout his pontificate a wonderful catechesis on the saints and on the call to holiness, as a translation of the Gospel into concrete life and as real-life demonstrations of the credibility of faith. Francis continues in the same vein, insisting on the dimension of the joy that necessarily flows from faith and makes it manifest.

It is the theme of the whole of his latest apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate.” We can see that the word of joy reappears like a refrain in all the titles of its most important documents. “Evangelii Gaudium,” the joy of the proclamation of the Gospel is at the heart of the spirituality of the missionary church; “Amoris Laetitia,” the joy of love is at the heart of spirituality in the family; “Laudato Si’,” Franciscan joy is at the heart of integral ecological spirituality that must animate our responsibility for and commitment to our common home. Thus, Francis invites us to look at the building of peace and the whole history of the world with a global perspective pervaded by the optimism of Christian hope.

Allow me one further observation, regarding the way Pope Francis personally lives his mission, feeling accompanied and sustained by the Spirit of the Lord. It is based on my experience in close service to him. Like many others who knew him before he was elected, I, too, was amazed by the energy and vitality that accompanied him from the moment of his election. The last period of his service as archbishop of Buenos Aires was rather much less dynamic and almost a prelude to the end of his great pastoral responsibilities there. Moreover, everyone knew that he was not a passionate traveler, while as pope he has fearlessly and enthusiastically faced intercontinental journeys that are very tiring and demanding—especially for one of his not-young age.

I once asked him explicitly how he explains the truly prodigious physical and spiritual strength that accompanies him as pope. He answered immediately, without any uncertainty and with total spontaneity: “It is the grace of state!” That is, the particular grace that the Lord gives to make possible the fulfillment of the mission that he himself has entrusted. It is the obvious answer of a true believer. It is also the explanation of the substantial serenity that accompanies him, despite the difficulties that have not been lacking, are not lacking and certainly do not become fewer as time goes by.

Culture of encounter

Since I have touched on one aspect of Pope Francis’ personal attitude toward God, I take this opportunity to conclude by touching on an aspect of his relations with people which seems to me to be very characteristic.

In my own small personal experience, I was able to grasp the difference in personality and approach between Benedict and Francis in a very precise context. After each pope’s audience with a head of state or prime minister, the director of the Press Office has a very brief meeting with the pope to receive information and essential indications for his communiqué. Pope Benedict would summarize the meeting, in a very short time and with extraordinary clarity, offering some specific points on the contents of the interview. Pope Francis did not speak to me about the contents of the meeting—not spontaneously—but about the personality of his interlocutor: his attitude, what he had said about himself, his human traits and the climate of dialogue.

The other is never a stranger. She is a sister, he is a brother: a person loved by God and to be loved.

Both were very precious sets of indications, but certainly this is an expression of a different approach: the one more attentive to the object of the interview, the other to the concrete person of the interlocutor. It is easy to understand that Francis also follows a different style of “diplomacy,” and easy to understand how the personality of Francis, his “charisma,” makes him able to put original initiatives into the field or adopt methods of intervention that can sometimes create openings in blocked situations or allow new pathways appear where before they could not be glimpsed.

This approach of Francis, who does not in any way deny the importance of the cultural dimension and conceptual content but favors building relationships with people taken altogether as they are, is what he indicates with the expression “culture of encounter.” The other is never a stranger. She is a sister, he is a brother: a person loved by God and to be loved. To take the first step toward the other with confidence, with the courage to let yourself be seen as you are, to bring into play not only your own ideas but yourself. To be not ashamed to feel compassion, even expressing it sometimes with tears in the face of the other’s suffering. To offer and ask for forgiveness. To try to achieve that empathy, which can spark the meeting and, therefore, set off a dialogue that is not purely abstract but one of a vital and common journey. These are all aspects of a “culture of encounter” to be proposed at all levels: among peoples, cultures, religions and different Christian confessions; among people in all their differences. Only in this way can peace grow in the church, in society and in the world.

Dear friends, with this desire to live together the experience of the culture of the encounter, my itinerary through Benedict’s pontificate and into the present one of Francis comes to an end. I hope I managed to share with you something of the great gift it was to serve them.

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Thousands gathered in Dublin May 12 to say "Love Both" and "Vote No" to abortion on demand. They were protesting abortion on demand in the forthcoming referendum May 25. (CNS photo/John McElroy)
“Priests and bishops get verbal abuse by being told, ‘How can you speak for women? You don’t know what it’s like!’”
America StaffMay 25, 2018