John Allen has described Pope Francis at six months as a "force of nature." He is certainly that. But what is it exactly that this force of nature wishes to accomplish?
The lens through which to view these past six months just might be a statement the Pope made to Latin American youth during his trip to Brazil in July, when he encouraged them "to make a mess." The mess he was calling for, however, was not some kind of chaotic nihilism, but the active, joyous living out of the Gospel. And so he went on: "I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves."
And if we look at what Pope Francis has accomplished these last six months, it has all been a practical living out of the advice he gave his enthusiastic, youthful audience.
It began on the evening of his election. The story that he informed the master of ceremonies who tried to vest him in elegant robes that the "carnival is over," is probably too good to be true. But without doubt, from the moment he stepped onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square, he was sending a message that his pontificate would be very different: The name Francis, the simple white cassock, a request that the crowd bless him, a reference to himself not as pope but as bishop of Rome.
And this unpredictable overturning of expectations remained a constant feature of Francis's early days. On Holy Thursday, just a few days after his election, he washed the feet of youthful prisoners in a Roman jail, including -- to the great dismay of traditionalists -- teenage Muslim women. Holy Thursday, Pope Francis signaled by his actions, was not about clericalism, it was not an austere re-enactment of the creation of the priesthood, but the precursor to God's great act of love -- the drama of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.
Like his medieval namesake St. Francis, the Pope has a deep yearning for solidarity with the poor. He denounced late stage capitalism as creating a "throw-away" culture, in which we freely waste food and vital necessities even as a gulf widens between the opulent few and the struggling many.
He has shown a welcoming warmth toward immigrants. He traveled to Lampedusa, in the south of Italy, and a place of many tragedies, to commemorate those desperate souls who have died trying to make the passage between North Africa and Europe. He cast a garland of flowers into the sea as an act of mourning, and, just a few days ago, proposed that unused church buildings -- abandoned convents or monasteries -- be used as housing for immigrants.
His outreach to progressive Catholics has also been most welcome. The canonization process of Pope John XXIII had languished during the final days of John Paul II and Pope Benedict's pontificate. But Francis accelerated Good Pope John's cause with one grand gesture, declaring that this holy man, this symbol of reform and social justice, should be a saint even in the absence of the required second miracle.
He has also shown the warm ecumenical touch of John XXIII in his dealings with those of different faiths or none at all. He showed respect for non-believers in the earliest days of his pontificate when he met with the press for the first time. He prayed the apostolic blessing in silence, out of respect for the consciences of non-Catholics and atheists. In May, he declared that God's redemptive love embraced not just Catholics, or even all Christians, but also skeptics, agnostics, seekers, and atheists.
Just a few days ago, His Holiness followed up on these comments with a more formal letter to Eugenio Scalfari, the still-vigorous 89-year-old editor of the secular newspaper La Repubblica. He acknowledged that previous efforts at dialogue between Christians and atheists had failed, but he expressed hope that these conversations would soon be renewed. And the dialogue he wished for, he made clear, is one which "is open and free of preconceptions, and which reopens the doors to a responsible and fruitful encounter." Francis harbored the hope that both he and Scalfari may "seek the paths along which we may walk together."
And there are the provocative comments about gays and celibacy. Who can forget his airplane interview, returning from World Youth Day, where he informed his stunned audience that "if a person is gay, and follows the Lord, and has good will, then who am I to judge?" In making this statement, Pope Francis cited to that part of the Catholic Catechism which calls on Christians to welcome gays. He omitted all mention of the hostile sections.
Even though many on the right have tried to impute to Pope Francis the language of para. 2357 of the Catechism, which denounces same-sex attraction as a "grave depravity," I can find no instance where Pope Francis has used this language or referred to this part of the Catechism during his time as Pope. He has never gone back to say, "oops, I left out the part about condemning gays." It seems that he wants an open door on this matter, and he is inviting Christians of good will to drive the development of doctrine.
And now we have his new Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, raising the subject of mandatory priestly celibacy and musing out loud about the possibility of change. Yes, the distinction between discipline and dogma is standard Catholic fare, and yes, the rule concerning celibacy is a matter of discipline, which can change with the times. No the Secretary did not precisely break new ground. But as with gays, so with celibacy -- the question has been asked. Let's see where it goes.
Pope Francis has thus far lived up to the radicalism of his namesake. Granted, he will not move aggressively to make deep changes in the Church. The Pope, after all, must keep the Church unified. But he is putting back on the table, after a hiatus of nearly 40 years, some of the truly vital questions that must confront a living Church. He is making an exuberant "mess" for sure, but it is a good mess, a wondrous Christian mess. He has brought life to a Church and a faith that was in real danger of irrelevance and self-referentialism, a Church that was sliding into the grim ice age of a demographic winter. He has thrilled young people and has summoned them to the faith. Jon Stewart "loves this guy."
And this is as it should be. Christians, after all, are called to live out the Gospel in the world, not hunker down behind a wall of incense and lace. And Pope Francis is making sure of that.