The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope

Pope Francis has been great fodder for sensational news stories ever since he became pope. Will we see more of the same in 2017?

In 2016 news outlets announced that he was considering introducing deaconesses – female deacons – to the church, next stop female priests. Pope Francis merely said that he had wondered about the role of deaconesses too, and it should be studied.  I have difficulty in understanding on how one can extrapolate a comment on studying the issue to having  deaconesses and priests!  It does make for good headlines though.

I think it is important not to take what what reads in the media at face value.  The various Catholic news sources may not be as bad, though they have their own biases, as can be seen in the recent furor over the ‘dubia’.  Translations of complete transcripts however are more reliable, such as the recent one of Pope Francis’s Christmas address to the Roman Curia. By the way, that Christmas address is good reading as an overview of his guiding principles and actions.  Still, we can take this investigation in learning about Pope Francis even further.

What do Pope Francis’ words/deeds mean? Where are they coming from? To really understand a man, or in this case the Pope, it is instructive to learn about his life, and Austen Ivereigh does a great job in his 2014 book, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope. I enjoyed many insights into this fascinating leader of my church.  To whet your appetite a few tidbits are given below.

What was Pope Francis’s childhood like?  How and why did he decide to become a priest?

Learn about how this former vehement opponent of the charismatic members of the church changed his mind and why(291-292). And what formative experiences have teased out the delineation that Pope Francis now makes about the role of the episcopal and papal authorities. (Not one unified uniform church but one church in reconciled diversity?)

Find out about the then Argentinean bishop’s role in the 1968 regional conference of Latin American bishops.  This elaborated on the preferential orientation to the poor – the origin of liberation theology – to liberation not only from sin but sinful social structures that kept the majority poor. It brings to mind my recent post on the thoroughly Catholic AND.  

Then, what role does Pope Francis think the magestrium and the people of the church should play?  This should be of interest to all those who critique the Catholic church as an unwieldy bureaucratic organization.  Again we can look to this life story to see the people centered focus. That the activity of the church should not only be directed to the people but also be derived from the people. The people show how the church teaches, the magestrium what it teaches (111).

All Catholics are part of the church, and it is our participation in it, facilitated by this “radical reformer”, that makes it what it is each and every day. I do my part to understand what is happening and why, rather than simply relying on 2 second media sound bites. In doing so I am excited energized encouraged in many ways.  




Unofficial Papal Mottoes: Part II – Pope Francis and Limitless Divine Mercy

How does the role of Divine Mercy” as an unofficial motto play out with Pope Francis? When asked about homosexuals Pope Francis replied, “Who am I to judge”. This should remind us of the deliverance of the adulterous woman where Jesus Christ told those who wanted to stone the woman, “Let the one among you who is guiltless be the first to throw a stone at her [John 8:7]” That Pope Francis, said, “who am I to judge” does not mean that the Church accepts homosexuality as ok. Note that at the end of the adulterous woman story when the woman says to Jesus that no one in the crowd has thrown a stone he replies, “Neither do I condemn you. []Go away, and from this moment sin no more [John 8:11].” This was a nuanced and merciful response, like Pope Francis today. Francis has repeatedly said that he accepts the basic tenets of the Catholic faith such as marriage, family, and sacredness of human life…that he simply is not spending as much time on polarizing issues as that is not what his triage of the Church is calling for.

This message of “divine mercy” is revitalizing and energizing the church.  It is making it more attractive and relevant to the people of the world. Pope Francis was the person of the year in 2013 for Time and many other magazines.  There are many other measures of popularity and positive awareness that can be tabulated, as well.  In recent times there has been a call for “The New Evangelism”.  It is the right time too, as Pope Benedict XVI said, re-propose the Gospel “to those regions awaiting the first evangelization and to those regions where the roots of Christianity are deep but who have experienced a serious crisis of faith due to secularization”, clergy scandals like child abuse and more.  Pope Francis in his daily actions serves as a model of how to do so.  It is easy to simply label something black or white.  It makes life easy, but not necessarily right.  Let us follow the more nuanced merciful example of Pope Francis.

Unofficial Papal Mottoes – Part I

This started out as one post but as I developed it further it I saw that I was actually covering two topics, so I’m splitting it in II. Today is Part I.

Every Pope tends to use a certain phrase repeatedly during his reign as head of the church which encapsulates the direction they are taking the church. For Pope John Paul II (16 Oct 1978 – 2 April 2005) it was “Do Not Be Afraid”.  With the Cold War and the horrors/misery of World War II part of the global psyche, it was a message that people needed to hear and brought hope to millions.

Next came Pope Benedict (19 April 2005 – 28 February 2013) with “Faith and Reason”. With “just reason” Benedict warned that one falls into the trap of utilitarianism and nihilism. No religion can survive by “faith alone” as without reason the risk is of radicalists like al-Quaeda. In Christianity fundamentalism is most closely associated with those who believe that inspiration and infallibility of Scripture is translates into literal interpretation of the Bible, creationism.  This message really resonated with me, but it was poorly communicated in the media, and thus to the world.

Today we have Pope Francis (13 March 2013-present) and his message is one of “mercy”, that the “Lord never tires of forgiving”. Society has seen the authoritarian Catholic Church, the critical one.  Now it needs to see the merciful Church, and mercy as lived in the lives of Catholics every day. The media has been emphasizing simplified polarizing lighting rod messages like “no abortion and contraception”. The church’s acknowledgement that in the struggle of daily living “life is sacred” issues are not easy – a more nuanced merciful perspective – was lost in the noise. Pope Francis brings the message of divine mercy to the forefront of Catholic and world consciousness. As Pope Francis said, the Church needs to be a “field hospital”, conducting “triage” and emphasizing pressing needs of the people, first.  Everything is underlined with the focus on “divine mercy”.

Do you agree with my interpretation of Papal messages?  What are your thoughts and ideas?  What does the message of “endless divine mercy” mean to all of us?  My take on the message of divine mercy will be in part 2.