Pope Francis prays in front of the Israeli security wall in Bethlehem, West Bank, during his 2014 visit. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano, pool

‘Pope Francis is different’

  • March 3, 2023

In Rome in 2013 I was a prisoner of the twin forces of deadlines and uncertainty. Nobody knew who would be elected Pope, but The Catholic Register had to be ready. Locked in a tiny hotel room, I was typing furiously. What if it was an African? I had to have a story ready so we could drop the name into the first paragraph. What if it was the Canadian, Cardinal Marc Ouellet? I had to have that one typed and ready to go. Martini? I wrote three pages of background and analysis. Who were the Latin American contenders? I wrote as much as I could about Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga.

On March 13, the paper had to go to the printer. I called back to Toronto and told my colleagues, “Send the paper. They’re not going to settle this today. There are too many choices to make a decision this quickly.” 

It was only the fourth ballot. As the day turned to evening, I was on the edge of nervous exhaustion. Then the BBC hit me with a sledgehammer. White smoke two blocks away was billowing on my TV screen in the tiny hotel room. Who was it? Half an hour more and the name came up. 

Who in Heaven was Jorge Bergoglio?

All those pre-written stories were as useful as a steering wheel on a horse. I grabbed a blue book handed out by the Vatican press office with one-page resumes for each and every cardinal under 80. The official biographies had the narrative colour and intrigue of tax forms. From this and the Internet and his stunning appearance an hour later on the balcony above St. Peter’s Square, I had to write something — to somehow share this moment with tens of thousands of Catholics back home.

Like every other reporter, I made much of his new and stunning name, Francis. I hung on his simple greeting to the crowd below, “Buonasera” or “Good evening” — as if he had just happened to bump into friends on his way to supper. There was definitely news in the idea of a Jesuit Pope — another first.

The editors in Toronto held the paper. The story got in. We debated keeping me there to report on the post-conclave buzz around Rome, but it was going to be too expensive. The new Pope riding the bus wearing his old black brogues and carrying a worn briefcase, his call home to Buenos Aires to cancel his newspaper subscription, his decision to stay at the Santa Marta guesthouse rather than move into the papal apartment overlooking St. Peter’s were stories for other reporters.

A more complete answer to the urgent question I had faced in that cramped, Rome hotel room — pages of notes and press releases strewn across the narrow single bed and my computer perched on a shelf passing itself off as a desk — emerged over the following year. Finally, in May of 2014 Zuhair Espanioli from Nazareth in Israel answered the question for me. 

While I sat beside Espanioli in a plastic chair and under a brutal sun in Manger Square, Bethlehem, he gave me his brief personal history with popes. Espanioli was part of the dwindling Palestinian Christian minority, left behind by relatives who fled to build new lives in Chile and Nicaragua and the United States. Some combination of faith and hope kept Espanioli in the Holy Land despite all the bitter, paranoid politics — despite the outbreaks of war. So he had been there when Pope Paul VI visited. He saw Pope St. John Paul II twice. He was in the crowd when Pope Benedict XVI arrived on an apostolic journey.

Pope Francis is different, he told me.

“This one is our religion,” he said in his third language. “The most important thing is that we love, love, love and forgive.”

Espanioli wanted to be sure I knew that Pope Francis was to have lunch in Bethlehem with poor families from a nearby refugee camp.

“He doesn’t look for the very rich people,” he said.

This Nazarene had seen world leaders — presidents, prime ministers, etc. — landing in Tel Aviv and pussyfooting around the question of peace in his region, not wanting to commit to one side or the other, not wanting to raise unrealistic expectations. But Espanioli fully expected Francis to address peace and the forever-refugee status of Palestinians. He recognized the courage of the man.

The next day, Francis went to the Wall for the Palestinians. It’s one of the most famous photographs of Francis, head bent in prayer before the Israeli West Bank barrier that slices through Bethlehem. The Pope prayed for peace.

Ten years on, he’s still praying for peace though it may cost him tears. On Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, those tears welled up as he prayed on the Spanish steps for Ukraine. Francis mourned the fact he could not bring thanksgiving directly from the Ukrainian nation.

“Instead I must present you with the pleas of children, elderly, mothers and fathers and the young people of that martyred land,” he said, catching his breath and wiping away tears.

"In Canada, Pope Francis showed us a Church of encounter"

Tears, and at other times giggles and grandfatherly smiles, have been essential ingredients in the Francis’ papacy.

“His whole approach is more affective than it is cerebral,” said Michael Higgins. “He understands, I think, that in the struggle for humanity in a complex world, what people don’t need is airy pronouncements on sacred tradition and denunciations of modernity.”

Higgins, the Basilian Distinguished Fellow of Contemporary Catholic Thought at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, is hard at work on a book about the Francis papacy. The Canadian academic believes Pope Francis has led a deep, profound and permanent revolution in the Church.

“There have been significant changes in the ecclesiological thinking coming out of Rome,” Higgins said. “It’s not possible, in my view, to reverse it. It’s impossible.”

While it is certainly true that Francis has brought with him the perspective of an outsider — never attended university in Rome, never worked in the Vatican, visited Europe only as necessary before he became Pope — it is not where he comes from but where he’s headed that matters most to Higgins. The Gospel imperative of a missionary Church bubbles to the surface in everything Francis does and says. It’s a program that demands a global understanding of Christ’s saving mission in the world.

“Christianity is a religion. It’s a global religion. It’s not a European religion. It’s not a tribal reality. It’s not a sect. It’s not a cult,” said Higgins. “It’s a big tent. It is, as (Pope Francis) says, a field hospital. It’s there for the sick and the wounded and those who have never been touched by Christ.”

However obvious this may seem, it has caused a stir.

“I think of Pope Francis as a disruptor, frankly,” said Higgins.

Sebastian Gomes, writer and director of the 2014 Salt + Light Media documentary The Francis Effect, spent the first year of the Francis papacy documenting the disruption.

“One-O-One in the life of a Christian is understanding that the Gospel will meet resistance,” said Gomes.

That first year saw Pope Francis on the cover of Rolling Stone, Time and National Geographic. In the media, in conversations everywhere, suddenly the Gospel and the Church were trumpeted in a new key.

“Pope Francis lives the Gospel in a very intentional and direct way, symbolic way, so that everybody can see clearly what’s going on and what he’s trying to do,” said Gomes, who today is a producer at America Media in New York. “Here’s somebody who is willing to live differently. It’s the basic simplicity of it all that speaks. When somebody is living a profoundly authentic, humble, sincere life and seems to have a major platform on the global scale, it’s sort of unique. The light shines against the dark. We live in a time in the world right now when the darkness is real.”

Gay Catholics have found life under Francis. From “Who am I to judge” to the Pope’s regular meetings with gay, lesbian and transexual Catholics to his most recent call on Catholic bishops to oppose laws that criminalize homosexuality, this Pope has signalled that the Church does not exist to exclude or condemn anyone, said Michael O’Loughlin, author of Hidden Mercy: Catholics, AIDS and Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear.

Even though Pope Francis has not changed the Catechism, which still speaks of homosexuals as “objectively disordered,” gay Catholics believe the Pope is on their side, O’Loughlin said.

The expanding Catholic conversation about sexual minorities isn’t just about the welcome a few gay couples might receive in their parish. A Church ready to welcome, striving to understand, knowing that people are individuals and not categories is simply a better Church, O’Loughlin said.

“One lasting legacy of Pope Francis, regardless of what comes next, is that he’s empowered a generation of LGBTQ Catholics not to settle for less than the dignity and respect that all people are entitled to.” 

"I dream of a missionary option"

One of the most consistent lines of attack against Francis has been the accusation that he’s no theologian. Theologian Sr. Gill Goulding of the Congregatio Jesu and Regis College in Toronto rejects the notion.

“In Pope Francis’ proclamation of the importance of mercy there is both a credible intellectual rigour and a profound theological insight,” Goulding said. “For him, mercy is not mere pastoral appendage.”

There’s enough theological rigour in Pope Francis’ understanding of mercy for Goulding to author a 276-page study, “Pope Francis and Mercy, A Dynamic Theological Hermeneutic” due out from University of Notre Dame Press in September. When the Pope says “The Name of God is Mercy” in the title of his 2016 book, it’s not just an eye-catching phrase. It has implications for how we live as Christians.

“At the most profound level, Pope Francis has issued a challenge to a re-appropriation of an understanding of the Church configured to Christ, journeying with Him along a synodal path towards Trinitarian life,” Goulding said in an email.

For Francis, theology comes after. Proclamation comes first. We saw that last summer in Canada. He came to proclaim mercy, to proclaim sorrow, to proclaim hope, to ask for forgiveness. And he asked the Church in this country to proclaim joy and mercy with him.

“The Gospel needs to be proclaimed if we are to communicate the joy of faith to today’s men and women. Yet this proclamation is not primarily a matter of words, but of a witness abounding with gratuitous love, for that is God’s way with us,” Pope Francis said at an evening prayer service in Quebec City’s cathedral July 28.  

In Canada, Pope Francis showed us a Church of encounter. Each and every day he met with survivors, met with young Indigenous Canadians. He faced our realities and our history head on. His prayer at the water’s edge of Lac St. Anne in Alberta, though silent, held this nation — its history and its hidden truths — in the clarity and sunshine of truth.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Francis hasn’t just convened a synod. In calling Catholics around the world to think and talk about how their Church can be more synodal, Francis is calling for a Church configured to Christ — not configured to a static image of the past and not configured to clerics. Pope Francis has for 10 years waged a war against clericalism, what he called “a plague in the Church.”

On the flip side of the Church’s plagues is synodality — Francis’ prescription for a life in Christ.

“There is still a long way to go for the Church to live as a body, as a true people, united by the one faith in Christ the Saviour, animated by the same sanctifying Spirit and oriented towards the same mission of proclaiming the merciful love of God the Father,” Pope Francis told the bishops and lay people gathered Feb. 18.

That long, synodal way now stretches out into the fall of 2024. The Synod on Synodality is Pope Francis’ great hope of realizing the dream of Vatican II. He is the first Pope ordained to the priesthood after the Second Vatican Council, but also the true inheritor of what Pope St. John Paul II called “a privileged moment of grace in the Church’s history.”

“From the Council there emerged a Church which is both more deeply rooted in the Gospel and closer to the people,” Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint.

In our time, in the 21st century, we now witness a Pope rooted in the Gospel and close to the people.

“I dream of a missionary option, that is a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything,” Pope Francis wrote in his first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium. “So that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”

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