Pope Francis is approaching 100 days as our Holy Father. The beginning of his papal service has drawn massive attention and offered new ways of carrying out the leadership of the Universal Church. There is amazing interest in this unpredictable story. Washington was both fascinated and appalled by a quick election with no visible campaign, no declared candidates, no consultants or commercials, and the only exit polls were black or white smoke from a chimney.
As part of a panel on the new pope at Harvard (not the typical Harvard forum), I asked how a publisher would respond to this novel. Chapter One is about the first papal resignation in 600 years. Chapter Two focuses on a 76-year-old Jesuit priest riding the bus to work as Archbishop of in Buenos Aries. Chapter Three is the story of the conclave, where the Jesuit is elected and calls himself Francis to show commitment to the poor, peace and creation. Chapter Four covers the early days of the new pope as he asks the crowd to bless him before he blesses them, refuses to move into the Apostolic Palace and spends Holy Thursday in jail washing the feet of young prisoners, including women and Muslims. The response probably would have been “don’t waste your time or mine on such fantasy,” but all this actually happened.
Like others, I’ve been watching this story in amazement. More importantly, I have been reading and listening. I find Pope Francis’ morning homilies on the scriptures a daily source of spiritual challenge and enrichment, both provocative and hopeful. After 100 days, Washington often asks how the office has changed the new occupant of that office, whether the new leader has been able to make any real difference and what this beginning suggests for the future. Here are some thoughts on those questions.
1. Francis is changing the Vatican, not the other way around. So far, Francis is changing how the responsibilities of the pope are carried out, more than those responsibilities are changing him. He resists isolation and insists on reaching out to a new council of eight cardinals, to those who share the guest house and its common meals, to phone old friends and to reach out to the people he serves, especially the poor and vulnerable. Pope Francis is adapting the customs of the papacy to his pastoral manner, rather than the other way around.
2. Everybody’s pope...so far: Pope Francis is making a big difference in how the papacy and church are perceived. On June 14, Real Clear Religion, a Web site that links to major articles and analysis on religion led with Pope Francis Is Good for Jews, by Francis Rocca, in the Wall Street Journal and Pope Francis Is Good for Protestants, by Chris Nye, in Relevant Magazine. This follows by a few days He's Our Francis, Too, by Timothy George, in the major evangelical publication Christianity Today. This is not the typical coverage of the church and papacy in recent years. By who he is, how he acts and what he says, Pope Francis is helping people, Catholics and others, see our church and papal leadership in very different and more positive ways. In fact, I’ve heard people say they are returning to church because they feel welcomed and encouraged by Pope Francis.
3. Symbolism is substance: Pope Francis is a man of simple ways and powerful words. Symbols are substance in a sacramental church. Where he lives, what he wears, where he stands, how he speaks, how he reaches out to others demonstrate his humble approach to serving as Bishop of Rome. The stories are many: offering a chair and sandwich to a Swiss guard; stopping off to pay his bill and pick up his bag at his hotel; calling to cancel his hometown newspaper; telling Argentines to not come to Rome for his installation but instead to give the money to the poor; and most powerfully, washing the feet of the young prisoners on Holy Thursday.
4. Power is service: From his first homily Pope Francis has insisted “authentic power is service” and that it his responsibility to “open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important.” There is no entourage, no palace guard and no apparent grand communications strategy, just a global pastor on a new stage sharing his faith, hope and love.
5. What’s in a name? In his addresses, homilies and other initiatives, Francis has consistently placed the poor at the very center of his service and Catholic life. Francis constantly lifts up the humanity of those who are poor, our duty to defend their lives and dignity and the church’s obligation to go to the edges of life to be with and care for “the poorest, the weakest, and the least important.” This is a demonstration of Catholic teaching, not a diversion. Francis’ emphasis on the priority for the poor is a bold expression of Pope Benedict’s neglected teaching in Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Veritate. His strong words about “savage capitalism” and indifference to the poor are applications of traditional Catholic teaching delivered with the passion of a pastor whose heart is with the poor and whose feet have walked the slums.
6. Simple words carry a powerful message: The Holy Father is a reporter’s dream with punchy, provocative, challenging sound bites that communicate moral principle and genuine passion.
“War is the suicide of humanity because it kills the heart and kills love.”
“The food we waste is stolen from those who are hungry.”
“The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless.”
“The church is a mother, not a babysitter”… The church is not an organization, but “a love story.”
Warnings against “the sad life of slumbering Christians…couch potato Catholics…good enough Christians.”
And the media is having as ball with the comment about “even atheists” being redeemed by Christ.
7. Francis doesn’t fit: Pope Francis defies conventional political, ideological and ecclesial categories. He is not chaplain to particular factions, but a universal leader challenging all of us to set aside our ideological prejudices and political preferences to look anew at our challenges through the lens of the Gospel and Catholic teaching. As I have already written in America, Cardinal Bergoglio challenged the Marxist temptations of some elements of liberation theology, so Francis is more than comfortable challenging elements of “savage capitalism” that leave too many behind. The pope deplores a relativism that empties faith of meaning and goes along with a society losing its moral foundations. He also rejects a fundamentalism that doesn’t “want to change” and those who “wish to turn the clock back” and stubbornly seek to “tame the Holy Spirit.” Francis takes on the secularism that suggests we can build the good society without God and the materialism that says we measure society by what we have or produce instead of how we care for one another, especially the poor and vulnerable.
8. Identity matters: The church is not another organization that does good things, but the body of Christ. “We can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a compassionate NGO, but not the Church.” He constantly points to Christ crucified and the Resurrection as the center of Christian service and witness.
9. The devil is still around: The devil is getting his due in the messages of Pope Francis. He is a man of hope, but not a utopian optimist. There is evil in the world and in our lives and that evil has a source in Satan. Francis insists “pessimism, cynicism and calumny come from Satan” and reminds us “the devil always rips us off.”
10. Fundamental principles matter: Pope Francis reminded the Archbishop of Canterbury and all of us that unity requires the “promotion of Christian values in a world that seems at times to call into question some of the foundations of society, such as respect for the sacredness of human life or the importance of the institution of the family built on marriage.”
11. Making connections: Francis makes connections among priorities and principles that others divide. On the weekend he celebrated the Gospel of Life, Francis he made the case for the protection of the unborn and the poor as tests of our commitment to life. He said “the goal of economics and politics is to serve humanity, beginning with the poorest and most vulnerable wherever they may be, even in their mothers’ wombs. Every economic and political theory or action must set about providing each inhabitant of the planet with the minimum wherewithal to live in dignity and freedom, with the possibility of supporting a family, educating children, praising God and developing one’s own human potential.”
12. Build bridges, not walls: Pope Francis seeks to engage and persuade, seeking converts, not heretics. He told reporters for Civilta Cattolica “your main task isn’t to build walls but bridges.” He said “through dialogue, it is always possible to get closer to the truth, which is a gift of God, and to enrich one another.… It is crucial to open minds and hearts…. Even the church, when it becomes self-referential, gets sick and old.”
13. Don’t clericalize the laity: For years, Pope Francis has emphasized the lay vocation to be salt, light and leaven in the world. He has said, “[We] focus on…the sanctuary, rather than bringing the Gospel to the world.” The call of the laity is “to live and spread the faith in their families, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and beyond…to be a leaven of the love of God in society itself…. [The layperson] is to create and sow hope, to proclaim the faith, not from a pulpit but from…everyday life.”
14. No room for whiners, gossips and climbers: Francis has no time for “Mr. and Mrs. Whiner” or “melancholy Christians whose faces have more in common with pickled peppers than joy.” For Francis, the gospel is “good news,” and we ought to show it. He also has no time for the “dark joy of gossip” and the bickering among believers. This kind of attack Francis calls “an ugly mechanism.” He reminds us: “Do not speak ill of one another. Do not denigrate one another. Do not belittle one another.” “In the end,” the pope said, “we are all traveling on the same road.” Francis repeatedly warns against clerical ambition: “careerism is leprosy. Leprosy.”
15. Ideologues need not apply: One predictable development in these first 100 days is the temptation to claim the pope is our kind of Catholic…social activist or evangelical Catholic, culture warrior or dialogue advocate, reformer or enforcer. When I was growing up the key question was whether we agreed with the pope, instead of whether the pope agreed with me. Some are trying to explain away Francis’ passionate identification with the poor and his blunt condemnations of a global economy that leaves too many behind. Others say all that social justice stuff is nice, but is he going to change teaching on abortion and gay marriage? Francis is not a chaplain to any faction, not a cheerleader for any political agenda. In fact, he has no time for ideologues who “falsify the Gospel…end up being intellectuals without talent, ethicists without goodness. And let’s not even speak of beauty, because they understand nothing of that.” He warns against those who resist Vatican II, “don’t want to change” and “wish to turn the clock back.” He likewise warns against those who empty our faith of substance, substituting a “cosmic bath” for prayer, “god-spray” for a real encounter with Christ and water down the faith to seek acceptance.
16. Go to the edges: The dominant theme of these first 100 days is that a church turned in on itself is sick. According to Pope Francis, “A church that doesn’t get out, sooner or later, gets sick from being locked up…. It’s also true that getting out in the street runs the risk of an accident, but frankly I prefer a church that has accidents a thousand times to a church that gets sick.” Francis is calling the church to get out of itself, take risks to proclaim the Gospel and defend the poor and vulnerable. Accidents are tolerable; “self referential” attitudes and behaviors are not.
Previews of Coming Attractions
There are many important decisions and challenges to come. We already know of two encyclicals on the way. Francis is completing Benedict’s encyclical letter on faith. Francis is also writing his own letter on the poor, which should be a clear challenge to the ominous silence on poverty in our public life. His return to Latin America for World Youth Day will be an enormous event and test. The future is unpredictable, but even now we can see some outlines of the path ahead:
Collaboration over isolation: Pope Francis resists isolation and seeks consultation and collaboration. He has already selecting his own “gang of eight” cardinals to help him lead the church, advising on reform and how to move the church forward. Their first meeting in October should be both groundbreaking and consequential.
Personnel is policy: If symbols are substance, than who he chooses to lead key Vatican offices is decisive in setting directions, priorities and tone for the church’s future. Francis has yet to begin to name those who will serve in these key roles. Many are focused on who will be named Secretary of State. However, the most important choices are those who become bishops and lead the church around the world. There are a number of major U.S. dioceses that will have new leadership soon. Who are the “Francis Bishops” who will lead us into the future?
The Sisters matter: In the United States and beyond, a key test of papal leadership will be how Francis deals with the visitation of religious communities and the future of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Whatever their intentions, these Roman initiatives have seemed to attack the fidelity, work and membership of religious communities that have played important roles in the lives of many Catholics. In a battle between the religious and Rome, the sisters and the bishops, most lay Catholics come down with “the sisters.” The signs so far are mixed with one dicastry reporting papal approval and another official expressing both regret and lack of consultation. In a reported meeting with Latin American religious, Francis seemed to downplay the significance of the Roman actions and urged a renewed focus on mission. This matter cannot be ignored since it has taken on symbolic meaning for many on how the church respects and treats all women.
Reform: who serves whom? By all accounts, the new pope has a mandate for substantial reform of the Roman Curia. The fundamental question is: Who does the Holy Father look to to actually lead the church forward: the bishops in local dioceses and national and regional conferences, or the heads of ecclesial structures in Rome? Many insist Roman structures have too often acted as headquarters looking down upon and ordering around the branch managers in the field. These critics suggest this centralization led to monumental lack of coordination among Vatican structures, lack of consultation on appointing bishops, surprise investigations and other processes with unanticipated challenges. They suggest the synods and other consultative structures became frustrating forums for endless five-minute speeches with little genuine listening and discussion on key issues of like clerical sexual abuse, religious freedom, secularization, global conflict and poverty. A crucial decision is whether Vatican structures are to serve the Universal Church in all its diversity and unity or whether local churches are in service of or responsible to the various Vatican structures.
A Pope Who Knows How to Pope
Pope Benedict by the end of his service was perceived as a pope who teaches. Pope Francis in the beginning comes across as a pastor who preaches—by word and example. This is an oversimplification. Our church has been blessed by remarkable leadership in proclaiming the Gospel and building up the Body of Christ. John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have used their enormous gifts and personal courage and fidelity to teach, lead, inspire and serve in differing times and differing ways. This essay is not a statement on authority or ability, but a description of how our new Holy Father is leading the church in these challenging times. Francis is reaching out to those he serves, defending the poor, proclaiming the Gospel with clarity and confidence, applying it to our everyday challenges and warning us against our selfishness and sinfulness. In one telling example, Francis condemned those who see the sacraments as a reward for good behavior, not a channel of God’s grace, insisting that those who come for baptism and marriage should be welcomed, not judged. This is a pope who comes across as very much a “holy father,” a very smart, caring and simple pastor of a global parish who teaches us every day by what he says and does. He is challenging all of us to live out the “good news” of Jesus Christ with courage, joy and humility.
One non-Catholic friend watching these first 100 days, said “you have a pope who knows how to pope.” After 100 days, I can’t wait to see how the rest of this story turns out.