THE BLOG
03/07/2014 05:24 pm ET Updated May 07, 2014

Pope Francis: A Year in the Life

ASSOCIATED PRESS

It has been a year since the white smoke poured forth from the chimney erected atop the Sistine Chapel signaling the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis. His election has ushered in significant developments in the way the Papacy does business and how that influences the Church and the world. Let's review a few:

1. Pope Francis is not afraid to reveal his humanity.

In his interview with Corriere della Sera just a few days ago, he dropped revealing hints about the relationship he had with his girlfriend before seminary days. But he has been upfront about his humanity from the very beginning. He paid his own hotel bill following his election. He lives not in the Apostolic Palace, but modestly in a guest house on Vatican grounds, surrounded by the comings and goings of people with every day concerns. He invites homeless people to dine with him. He poses for a "selfie" with a group of visiting Italian teenagers. The self-imposed austerity and aloofness of prior popes is not part of his way of doing business.

2. He has invented new ways of talking.

Because the papacy represents the highest teaching authority in the Catholic Church, its modes of speech have been carefully circumscribed by tradition and law. Popes teach through encyclicals, or allocutions, or apostolic exhortations. These forms of speech have precisely graded values which allow Catholics to know how much solemnity should attach.

Pope Francis, however, speaks in new and bold ways. He gives newsmaker interviews, and big ones. He holds long press conferences on airplanes. He sits for interviews not just with the Catholic press but the Italian secular press -- even La Repubblica, owned and edited by one of Italy's foremost atheist public intellectuals. He gives off-the-cuff, down-to-earth sermons. He warns vividly against sins -- gluttony, greed, gossip -- and calls people to follow Christ by paying heed to the least among us. He even cold-calls people who write to him asking for prayers.

3. He is thereby demystifying the papal monarchy.

He refers to himself, accurately, but modestly, as "Bishop of Rome." He means thereby to remind his brother bishops of their role as collegial governors of the Church. When it came time to renew his passport, he did so as an Argentinian. As a head of state, he is entitled to travel on a Vatican City passport. But it seems he wishes to reduce the earthly, secular side of the Catholic Church and this is a small step in that direction. The logic of the papal monarchy, after all, ran its course in the 1870's when Pope Pius IX lost the papal state to Garibaldi. And Pope Francis, in many respects, is completing that logical development as he deemphasizes all of the renaissance ritual that still surrounds the Holy See.

4. He is renewing our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.

Jesus' central concern was service to the margins of society. He called tax collectors and prostitutes to be among his closest followers. He dined with sinners. He rescued a woman about to be stoned for adultery. He sat down with the Samaritan woman at the well, who had been married five times and was now living with a man who was not her husband, and he promised her the gift of eternal life. Time and again, Jesus emphasized that his followers had to put the poor first and foremost in their hearts and minds.

And in large ways and small, Pope Francis is trying to imitate Jesus. African economic immigrants are shunned in Italy. And so Pope Francis traveled to Lampedusa to welcome them and to mourn the many who die every year trying to cross the Mediterranean. He washed the feet of a youthful Muslim woman confined in a Roman prison last Holy Thursday. And over and over again, he calls attention to the plight of the poor. An economy that mourns the loss of stock market valuation while ignoring the needs of the homeless, the destitute, the mentally and emotionally ill, is a dehumanizing economy, an economy in need of reformation.

5. Pope Francis has taken the Church's focus off of a single-minded obsession with theological correctness.

In 1978, when Pope John Paul II was elected, the great preoccupation was the restoration of ecclesial discipline. And this became a major focus of his pontificate. Under the supervision of Joseph Ratzinger, his loyal prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, investigations were launched into dozens of Catholic writers. Hans Kung, Charles Curran, Leonardo Boff, and Gustavo Gutierrez were just a few of the better known names.

By 2013, the Church was suffocating in the grip of this boundary-police Catholicism. A search of the Catholic blogosphere would reveal dozens of websites dedicated to detailed and inward-looking analysis of correct practice and criticism and condemnation of anything that did not conform.

Pope Francis is not a border patrolman. He dismissed some of the more extreme aspects of this single-mindedness as "narcissism" and "pelagianism." He has recommended that Catholics "make a mess." In speaking with a group of Latin American nuns, he told them not to be afraid to make mistakes in the service of the Lord. Do not fear a letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he advised them. A living, growing Church is a Church that needs breathing room. It needs freedom. And Pope Francis is ready to let experiments flourish.

6. He has begun much-needed structural reform.

Realizing that the Curia has become sclerotic and dysfunctional, he has turned to a select group of eight cardinals, drawn from different corners of the world, to advise him on important matters confronting the Church. There is even speculation that he is planning to build a parallel Curia that can streamline and assume many of the old structure's duties.

Along these lines, perhaps the most important steps Francis has taken are with respect to Vatican finances. He named George Cardinal Pell as "Secretary for the Economy," tasking him with the administration of the Church's material wealth. He has also moved to reform the Vatican Bank, firing most of the old team and bringing in a new group of administrators. He has pledged transparency, and the early reports are good.

Still, the world waits for a more visible response on the matter of clerical sex abuse. The Pope's actions thus far have been timid. To be sure, Pope Benedict did more to remedy this grave injustice than he has received credit for, and the same may be true of Pope Francis. But the public must be reassured, and only visible, public action can provide the necessary reassurance.

7. Pope Francis has called a ceasefire in the culture wars.

As he revealed in his newspaper interviews, he is a man with a high regard for secular culture. His favorite musicians, his favorite painters, his favorite movie directors, are all secular artists. This is a man who does not see either himself or the Church as standing walled off from the world, a Fortress Ecclesia standing strong against a secular tide. He is open to the good things that secular culture has to offer.

It is impossible to wage cultural war if you have an accepting view of the culture. And it is therefore not surprising that he wishes to deemphasize some of the hot button issues. He knows that the Church is crying out for internal reform, and that is where his energies must focus.

8. "Who am I to judge?"

These five words may define Pope Francis' pontificate. He made this statement when asked about gays in the Church. "When God looks at a gay person does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?" So inquired Pope Francis. "We must always consider the person."

Pope Francis is a pastoral pope. And pastors always consider the person. His response to gays flows from his desire always to meet individuals in the circumstances of their lives. Catholics believe that individuals are judged individually, on their merits, based on the particular realities of their lives. What Pope Francis is doing is driving this point home. No categorical judgment is possible. Bloodless abstractions have no place. Only the person.

In his March 5 interview with Corriere della Sera, he said much the same thing about contraception. Paul VI's teaching on contraception was a beautiful statement, but it must be administered with "much mercy." Its concrete application, in the lives of Catholics, is first and foremost a matter of conscience. This has always been Catholic teaching, of course, but it is an aspect of Catholic thought that was lost sight of amidst the grand theorizing of the last two pontificates.

The Jesuit Father John Langan, Professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown, has grasped this essential point in his essay on Pope Francis, "See the Person." Coming from a pastoral perspective, Langan asserts that the Church must consider "a new stance on the subject of homosexuality." Calling for "research ... across the fields of biology, medicine, social science, and ethics," Langan hopes for progress. He knows that the old way of doing business -- "we know what we know, what we don't know is not worth learning about" -- no longer works in the modern world. Pope Francis, with his "Who am I to judge?" has opened the door.