03/13/2014 02:03 pm ET Updated May 13, 2014

One Year In: The Joyful Surprise of Pope Francis


Today the world celebrates Pope Francis' first year. Notice I didn't say the church is celebrating, but the world. The pope has graced the covers of every magazine from TIME to Rolling Stone over the past year. People all over the world are delighted by the breath of fresh air he has brought. His popularity has moved beyond Catholics to Christians of all kinds, believers from other faith traditions, agnostics, and the "nones," who are very drawn to this pope who emphasizes love and simple living.

But the pope said last week that he is not a "superman" and does not want to be a celebrity. He is just trying to talk and live like Jesus, a point he makes repeatedly to shrug off his media darling standing. From the moment he took the name Francis, he made clear his, and thus the church's priorities: the poor, peace, and the creation. Francis is now challenging the most powerful people and places in the world, as well as a popular culture that mostly asks how we can serve ourselves.

Pope Francis is right: It is not about him; it's about the Christ he follows. Everything Francis is saying and doing is aimed at pressing this question: Are Christians going to follow Jesus or not? That should be the question on the first anniversary of this new pope. Are we Christians ready and willing to follow Jesus? How can we then serve the world?

Are we ready to love, embrace, forgive, and show mercy as Jesus would have us do and Francis has tried to exemplify? Are we ready to stand with and give our lives for the poor and call the global economy not just to charity, but to justice? Are we willing to take "a preferential option for the poor," as Catholic social teaching describes it, the way Francis has and apply it to both our personal and public lives?

Pope Francis has lifted up the priority of the poor in ways that are challenging the world from the top to the bottom. I had a meeting with Jim Yong Kim this week, the president of the World Bank. Kim, who has already met with Pope Francis, said that preferential option for the poor is his driving motivation as a "banker," which is changing the mission of the World Bank. I heard a top political operative on the "religious right" say on a national news show that Pope Francis has placed the poor at the center of the gospel where they belong. My question to the powerful broker would have been, "How is that going the change your life and your public policy commitments?"

How is it going to change our personal lives and choices, our vocational commitments, the priorities of our work places and institutions, what we ask and even demand of our elected political representatives, and our own participation in public life?

The second year of Pope Francis' ministry may be more challenging than his first. How much success will he have in transforming the Vatican itself? Will he consistently appoint new kinds of bishops who are inspired by the gospel priorities he has lifted up, more than old ideological ones? What will be the role of women be in the changing Catholic Church, and will they feel safe and respected as women in their church; as they always did with Jesus? How can Francis help us to change the "culture" of our churches? Less judgment and more grace; less control and more service; less concern about the influential and more about the poor and more vulnerable; less seeking power and more seeking justice. Francis knows that changing the culture of the church and transforming the church's role in the culture would, literally, bring more people to Christ.

Will Francis intervene in global issues that have no easy solutions like:

  1. Global immigration policies and practices on behalf of "the stranger" who Jesus asks us to welcome;
  2. Becoming "peacemakers," the ones who Jesus calls "blessed," by trying to prevent wars and helping make peace in places like the Central African Republic or Iran, or Syria.
  3. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which will need the moral authority, inspiration, and pressure that a pope could lead the faith community in?

Each of these would require hard work, time, and patience.

The powerful symbol that Pope Francis has offered has changed the perception of the church around the world. But it's time to move to action, which Pope Francis has already begun to do. He has the ability to shepherd systematic change in the global church, economy, and society. That is the opportunity that Francis has brought us, and also the challenge ahead. I believe Francis wants to obey Jesus' "Great Commission" to make disciples of all nations. And as Christians, we should take his lead.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.