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More Reflections on Francis' First Year

We knew Pope Francis was remarkable by the end of his first week in office. When he came out on to the loggia of St. Peter’s the evening of his election, and before imparting his apostolic blessing, Francis asked the crowd gathered in the square to pray for him, and bowed before them to receive their blessing. We knew he had a pope with a dialogical personality, a man whose humility was as strong as his convictions. During that same first appearance, he led the crowd in the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be, prayers every child would know, and we recognized he had the heart of a pastor.

A few days later, Francis met with the media gathered in Rome and, at the end of the audience, he said that, mindful of the fact that some of the journalists were not Catholic, and respecting the conscience of all, he would impart his blessing in silence. Then, we knew that this man had a keen sense of how to engage the modern world: This was no culture warrior, indeed, this was another demonstration of a humility one does not usually associate with the papal office.

There were other indicators of Francis’ humility that first week. We found out that he rode on the bus with the other cardinals after his election, eschewing the papal limousine. We watched him return to the hotel where he stayed before the conclave to retrieve his luggage and pay his bill. We soon learned he would not be living in the papal palace but would take a two-room suite at the Vatican guest house. We learned that in Buenos Aires, he had lived in a simple apartment, taken the bus to work, and was well known in the slums of that city.

One other incident that first week allowed to us to recognize, or infer, that for all his humility, Pope Francis also knew his own mind. It was announced that on Holy Thursday, he would be celebrating the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at a prison for young people. No media was present at the conversation when this decision was made, but it is easy enough to imagine Pope Francis announcing his intention, and his assistants objecting that the Mass of the Lord’s Supper has long been celebrated at St. John Lateran, indeed, that the Mass was so solemn, it was not held in the Vatican basilica but at St. John’s, the Cathedral of Rome. Pope Francis repeated his decision. Then, another assistant pointed out that thousands of tickets to the Mass had already been distributed. Pope Francis repeated his decision. A few days later, the pictures emerged, of Francis kneeling before a Muslim girl, washing her feet. That was a sight capable of turning a heart of stone into a receptacle of grace.

Since that first week, Pope Francis has continued to capture the imagination of the world, and the secret is discerned here, in this Pope’s stunning combination of humility and steeliness. Like popes before him, he is always at the center of attention but he seems never to want to dominate the room. His sermons are conversational, and he often sets down his text and speaks from the heart, and what he says in those unscripted moments are often the most powerful parts of his sermons. When he makes his way through St. Peter’s Square, he has the popemobile stop so he can embrace a severely disfigured man or a child crippled with MS, shifting the spotlight from himself to them, but really shifting the spotlight to Christ.

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Even his own biography is employed to make the point, as when he tells an interviewer that it was ridiculous for him to have been a Jesuit provincial while still in his 30s, that he was then too authoritarian in his decision-making, and that he has learned from those mistakes to be more consultative and collaborative. There is humility in such an admission of faults, and there is determination in communicating the lesson learned. Nowhere is the combination of humility and steeliness more evident than in his commitment to reform in the Church.

Pope Francis has said, repeatedly, that he was elected to undertake such a reform, that reform is what the cardinals said they wanted in their pre-conclave meetings, and it was what they knew they would be getting by choosing him. But, instead of embarking on his own mission of reform, he decided to create an entirely new body of consultors, a Council of Cardinals, to advise him, one from each continent. They are meeting every few months to discuss how to change the often Byzantine operations of the Vatican.

Already, it has become obvious that, in the face of deep and entrenched resistance on the issue of regularizing the finances of the Vatican, Francis discerned the need to create a new office to affect the overhaul and oversee the Vatican’s scandal-ridden finances. And, taking a cue from Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who told the pope he needed a rugby player for the task, Francis has appointed Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell to lead the new office. Pell is no blushing violet. Had he been appointed to lead the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or the Congregation for Bishops, there would be concern. Charged with the task of unearthing the shady financial dealings of some powerful prelates and instituting reforms that make such shady dealings impossible, or at least unlikely, in the future, Pell is the perfect choice for the job. Pope Francis’ first year has also been marked by a new development that alarms some and warms the heart of others: public squabbling among his principal advisors.

On the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics, Cardinal Muller of the CDF has pointedly, and appropriately, noted that it will require a very special type of exegesis to get around the words, “What God has joined, let no man put asunder.” The German cardinals, however, have said that surely more can be done to address the pastoral needs of divorced and remarried Catholics. Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez jumped into the fray, saying that Muller was a German theology professor, too quick to see things in black and white when, at the pastoral level, the world and its conundrums are very grey. Pope Francis has not stepped in to silence the public discussion. He is not threatened by the public discussion.

Here, again, we see humility and steeliness, combining, I hope, to result in a more successful mode of transmitting the Church’s teachings on this thorny issue of divorce and remarried Catholics: Commands from on high, after private deliberations, are more easily dismissed than decisions reached after a public weighing of all the issues. I do not know what changes will be made in the Church’s pastoral practice, nor what developments of our theology will emerge, but I suspect that whatever happens will be more easily embraced by all than a thunderbolt emerging from the Vatican out of nowhere.

Much has been made of the Holy Father’s comment, “I am a son of the Church.” He said this in response to questions raised by certain conservative critics who fretted he was underplaying the neuralgic issues of abortion, same sex marriage and contraception and, what is worse, he had publicly stated that the Church should not be simply “obsessed” with those issues. There need be no news bulletin when we find out the pope is opposed to abortion or believes that the sacrament of marriage is intertwined with the Church’s teaching on procreation, should there? But, not only does Francis not harp on these issues, he has placed them, properly, within the context of the Church’s essential proclamation of the Risen Christ, who showers His Church with mercy and love. Conservatives who want the pope to denude that essential proclamation of its richness and reduce it to an ideological or political platform will be disappointed. Liberals who commend the pope for his humility regarding his personal lifestyle will be similarly disappointed to find out that Francis is also humble before the traditional teachings of the Church. He is not a revolutionary, set out to overthrow all that went before: That would not be very humble. But, he is incapable of the self-satisfaction that seems to afflict so many prelates.

Recently, I published an article in Washingtonian magazine about Cardinal Donald Wuerl. For that piece, I interviewed Bishop Blase Cupich who said that Wuerl was among the most admired bishops in the U.S. in part because of his vast experience of the Church but also because he has the ability to reflect on that experience. It is a key insight. Wuerl, like Pope Francis, does not reduce every human conundrum to a natural law syllogism of perfect logic but imperfect pastoral application, a tendency that afflicts some of his colleagues in the U.S. hierarchy.

In Pope Francis, we have a man whose humility and steeliness are both rooted in a lifetime of walking with other Catholics as a fellow pilgrim. The Church, for him, is not an ideology but a way of walking through the world. This understanding yields a dialogical approach to his office, an accessibility to his words, a commitment to a collaborative style of leadership, and a determination to his steps. This pope is humble but sure-footed. He is unafraid to take a risk because he is unafraid to make a mistake, indeed, he has encouraged the rest of us to be less afraid of making mistakes if that fear keeps us from reaching out to the world. Critics and admirers of Pope Francis – and this could be said of his predecessors too - are too quick to reduce him to this statement or that, to an agenda, real or perceived, to miss the man while trying to locate his program. But, the cardinals do not draft a party platform, they elect a person, just as the Blessed Mother Mary did not deliver a summa but a baby.

I remember the days between Pope Benedict’s resignation and the election of Pope Francis when, at Mass, we did not pray for the pope because we had none. It is a strange time. Our fundamental belief in the Incarnation has led us Catholics to believe that God’s grace continues to be mediated to us through the sacraments, through engagement with the poor, through the Church’s teaching, but always and especially, through people. The Church is a body of believers, trying desperately to stay close to its head, the Lord. Our faith is propositional in a sense, to be sure, because faith in the Risen Lord is a proposition to which we assent or not. But, the Church is not a proposition because Christ is not a syllogism. Faith is an encounter with the Lord that leads us to encounter others and the world differently. This is the “culture of encounter” the pope keeps urging upon us.

In the past year, we have prayed every day for Pope Francis, at every Mass, in every part of the world. But, we have also gotten to know this man for whom we pray. He is whole. He is healthy. He is humble. He is determined. We are drawn to him and, just so, he is able to draw us to Christ. I do not know what reforms to expect. I do not know what appointments will be made. I do not know what he will do that will thrill me and what will disappoint. But, I know this. Pope Francis has captured the world’s imagination not because of his agenda, but because of his personality, no, personality sounds too ephemeral, better to say because of his personhood. We are excited by the specter, I believe, because watching Pope Francis live his Christian way of life, we feel something of the excitement of the apostles on the road to Emmaus. They were glum and fearful until the stranger joined them and set their hearts on fire. Francis sets our hearts on fire too. That fire has already remade the narrative about the Catholic Church in the 21st century, which will be the topic of the next, and final, commentary on his first anniversary in office.

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