I knew that Francis, Bishop of Rome, the slim new volume of reflections about Pope Francis by Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J., was going to be something special three pages into the Introduction. Deck, who has spent his life working in the fields of Latino theology and ministry and currently serves as the rector of the Jesuit community at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles (where I live), is describing his travels to meet people who knew the young Jorge Bergoglio—schoolteachers and brother Jesuits, theologians who inspired his early thinking, even the pope’s sister, María Elena. (Deck says she agreed with the many who said that upon becoming pope her brother had become a “different man.”)
He has been wandering the neighborhood in which Bergoglio grew up, has seen the font in which he was baptized and “the confessional where he first sensed God’s call to be a priest.”
And he finds himself in a Jesuit community in Buenos Aires where Bergoglio had been rector. He had hoped after lunch there to go to San José, the parish where the pope had been pastor, but a rainstorm has kept him at the community. The rector suggests he take a siesta and offers, of all places, the pope’s one-time bed. (You can’t ask a writer to get much closer to his source material than that.)
In Bergoglio’s “simple, austere” room, Deck discovers something interesting: “I noticed a statue of St. Joseph in a pose I had never before seen. It was Joseph, the husband of Mary, lying down asleep and dreaming.”
Apparently the statue had been in the room all the way back when Bergoglio was there; this image of Joseph sleeping is popular in Argentina. And “it struck me,” Deck writes, “as particularly fitting for understanding this pope. Like Joseph, he is a guardian of Jesus and of the fledgling church of which Mary is a model. The Holy Spirit—the source of Mary’s fecundity in giving birth to Jesus—communicates in mysterious ways and is inspiring Bergoglio just as he inspired Joseph.”
Put another way, what lies at the heart of this man is his willingness to dream, to imagine.
This spring also saw the release of Go Into the Streets! The Welcoming Church of Pope Francis, a volume of short, accessible articles on different aspects of the pope’s thinking co-edited by Thomas Rausch, S.J., a systematic theologian at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and Richard Gaillardetz, a theology professor at Boston College. If Deck’s book is a deep dive into the pope’s early influences, the book by Rausch and Gaillardetz offers instead a broad set of perspectives on topics like the pope’s vision of a church of the poor, by the Brazilian theologian María Clara Bingemer; his notions of evangelization, by professor Cecilia González-Andrieu of Loyola Marymount; and a consideration of the pope’s image of ministry, by the Australian-born theologian Richard Lennan.
Early this summer, I had the opportunity to sit down with Fathers Rausch and Deck to talk about their projects and lessons learned about the church and Pope Francis.
An Era of Change
“Pope Francis is trying to reclaim what the Second Vatican Council did,” Rausch proposes as we begin. “We’re moving from a more conservative reinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council that really goes against many of its impulses, [like] its impulse towards collegiality, toward a church that is communio, that allows local churches to make their own decisions.” It is, he believes, a time of “epochal change” in the life of the church.
Deck agrees and suggests another aspect of this monumental shift. “In the period of the Enlightenment,” he offers, “the faith wasn’t credible if you weren’t intellectualizing [it] and putting it in very rational terms.” The church’s emphasis was on providing a clear set of doctrines to which believers should adhere.
“But in the new period in which we find ourselves, clarity of doctrine isn’t enough. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t enough. In order to really persuade, in order to motivate, you have to somehow reach the heart.”
Pope Francis clearly excels at this, says Deck. “In the way that he’s communicating, the gestures that he makes, we see a very high regard for appealing to the affective aspect of people. He’s not communicating so much in concepts but in a more symbolic way.”
Deck and Rausch see this “affective impulse” in Francis as the fruit of both upbringing and formation. “In the global South,” Rausch explains, “there is a much greater emphasis on how things touch our hearts, and not just our heads.” They also note that the Spiritual Exercises, which form the foundation for the spiritual life of all Jesuits, serve to develop a personal, affective relationship with God—indeed, a friendship.
Both Deck and the authors of Go Into the Streets! emphasize repeatedly the centrality for Francis of “popular religion.” Rausch explains the term: “It’s all of the ways the Catholic faith takes on flesh and symbol and meaning in the life of the people—rituals, devotions [like those] to Mary, to the saints, fiestas.”
Deck goes on: Popular religion “is imaginative. It knows how to engage, motivate and fascinate people. It’s festive, it brings with it joy. It models ways in which the faith can concretely become life—through celebration, through beauty, through memory and people’s family traditions.”
“In other words,” he explains, “it’s not just a religion that’s codified in books or in catechisms, which in a sense dehumanizes our belief, removing it from the realm of symbol, gesture, narrative, myth—all the ways that religion really flourishes in the heart of the people.
“Popular religion is about what the faith really means to the people. How do they live it?”
Rausch notes this is not just a Latin American phenomenon. “Andrew Greeley always stressed we have the high tradition of our theology and doctrine, and the low tradition of the stories and symbols that are passed on in families, which really communicate the faith to the next generation, which touch people’s hearts and shape them as they grow up.”
I suggest the nativity scenes that families put up at Christmas as a possible example of this. Rausch emphatically agrees, noting how children look to a crèche with fascination: “‘There’s Jesus in the straw and the Virgin and the animals,’ they say. That’s far more effective than a lecture on the Incarnation.”
This makes me wonder if we might think of some of the pope’s public gestures of compassion and welcome as another sort of “performed” version of popular piety—vignettes like the scenes from Scripture in the Spiritual Exercises, meant to draw us into relationship with God or deeper reflection on our lives. Deck thinks the term performative is apt; in Latin American culture, he says, “you witness to what you believe. The faith is performative. You don’t theorize about it; you enact it.”
Another idea that stands out in these new books is parrhesia, which Deck translates from the Greek as “apostolic boldness” or “the boldness of Christ’s disciples as fostered in the Spiritual Exercises.” While clearly Pope Francis embodies this principle, Deck and Rausch feel he also views it as a template for the church as a whole.
They cite the recent meetings of the Synod of Bishops on the family. Some looked at the open conflicts during the meetings with concern, even horror. The modern church has generally tried to hide or suppress any signs of internal differences. But Deck and Rausch believe that for Pope Francis, such open conversations are essential. “Parrhesia means saying what you think,” says Rausch. “No one should say ‘I’ll embarrass the pope if I say what I think.’ This pope wants to know what you think. He’s very clear about that.”
Deck notes this way of proceeding is “nothing new”: “All you have to do is read the Acts of the Apostles, or Galatians, where Paul says he confronted Peter to his face.”
Perhaps, I posit, what throws some is that, unlike many modern popes, Francis seems to resist defining the teaching of the church in terms of what he himself has to say. So in his encyclicals, he regularly quotes bishops’ conferences, not himself. At the Vatican, he likewise preaches not from the papal chair but from a pulpit, like an ordinary priest.
Rausch argues that Francis clearly believes truth is to be discovered not just in the hierarchy but in the people of God. “We’ve divided the church into two parts, the teaching church and the taught church, and we’ve tended to think of the hierarchy as the teaching church. But the church is really a communio. It’s all of the people animated by the Spirit with different gifts and ministries.” Instead of only church leaders being the main actors or subjects, says Rausch, “they’re all subjects. The whole church is subject.”
I put it to them: Are they saying that for Pope Francis, conversation is essential to learn how best to communicate the word of God? Or that through conversation with people, even the church learns more about who God is? “It is about learning who God is,” replies Deck. “We are able to learn about the mystery of God and pursue truth from any quarter. It can come from any place. So it’s not just about communicating what we think the message is. It’s about learning our own message. It’s interculturation, a back and forth.
“Pope Francis at one point mentions that pastors in the church are sometimes in front of the sheep. Sometimes they’re with the sheep. And sometimes they follow the sheep.”
“And did you ever see a flock of sheep with a shepherd?” Rausch chimes in. “He’s usually following them. Because they know where to go.”
Based on what they are saying, I wonder if the arguments some people make that this pope is trying to radically change church teaching are actually describing him in terms that don’t really fit. Rausch and Deck agree. “He doesn’t want to change doctrine,” says Rausch. “He wants to address pastoral issues. God’s people are hurting. How do we bring the mercy of the Gospel and the joy of the Gospel into their lives?”
“The pope’s function is not just to clarify doctrines,” explains Deck, but to create the “connection that theology must have with spirituality”—that is, the lived practice of the faith. And out of that connection comes action or “engagement.”
Mercy and the Hierarchy
Rausch’s comments on mercy provoke a final area of inquiry. The pope has powerfully represented the church as fundamentally a community of mercy; but when it comes to the hierarchy, he does not seem to show much of that compassion himself. Why is that?
Rausch acknowledges the point. “He needs to be pastoral toward them. But he does want change, too. Clericalism is an enormous problem in the church. How many Catholics are turned off by pompous clerics who are not pastoral in their approach, who don’t care about them?
“The pope has a vision of what it means to be a priest,” Rausch argues. “You accompany the people, you show them God’s mercy, you show them the joy of the Gospel. But that’s not the experience of a lot of people.”
Deck agrees. The pope, he says “is reflecting an impatience that you can often find in the people themselves, who love the church, who love the leaders of the church. He’ll say things like ‘Doctors of the law, or pastors of the flock? What are we?’ We don’t need more doctors of the law.”
Stepping back, Deck finds the issue relates to the dramatic changes going on in the church.
“I would say one of the main qualities that was sought in a bishop, and this has been true for centuries, was loyalty. Loyalty to what, though? Loyalty to a certain kind of understanding of what we’re doing, of where we’re going.
“Well, the fact of the matter is, the church is turning a corner. It is now headed in a slightly new direction, and not everybody realizes this. It takes a while to catch up. That’s what’s happening.
“So it’s going to be difficult because we have leaders in the church who were formed for a slightly or maybe a considerably different church. But change is happening.”