06/18/2013 01:50 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2013

One Hundred Days of Pope Francis

Since his election on March 13, Pope Francis has captivated the imaginations and enkindled the hopes of many millions of Catholics and others throughout the world. His joyful spontaneity, his pastoral zeal for people, and his passionate defense of the poor against dehumanization and enslavement by capitalism, have helped to set a bold and exciting course for his papacy. June 21st marks the one hundredth day of this new pontificate. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt's first term, American presidents have been judged, in part, on what they could accomplish in their first 100 days in office. While popes are different, and Rome thinks perhaps in centuries, I dare say it may not be altogether inopportune to reflect briefly on what the first 100 days of Pope Francis have been.

In his Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton suggests that one cannot fully appreciate or understand Catholicism without direct experience of a Spanish, or Italian, or French Catholic culture and piety. Born in France, and with a traveler's experience in Italy and Cuba, Merton knew all three cultures to some extent. Pope Francis, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, is perfectly at home in at least two of the three cultures mentioned by Merton. Both Mediterranean and South American, Francis is happy to put aside planned, formal lectures in favor of impromptu conversation and dialogue. If his immediate predecessor seemed most at home in a classroom or library, Francis delights in chatting with people as if at a parish fiesta. Two of my students at the College of the Holy Cross recently returned from a trip to Rome during which they saw Pope Francis 'in action' twice, at Mass on Pentecost, and at a Wednesday papal audience. They report that Francis is much beloved by the crowds of people, and that he gives the impression of having all the time in the world to spend with them.

A bishop of Rome is also referred to as a pontiff, from the Latin pontifex or bridge builder. The origin of this term has to do with Roman emperors and the literal building of bridges over rivers and the like; for Francis, this means building other kinds of bridges, between separated peoples. His warm words for atheists as objects of God's love may have scandalized those that like to be stingy with God's grace, but Francis looks to have already chosen a course that seeks to cross divides. Healing division among various Christians seems also to be a preoccupation of Pope Francis. But in some ways his most difficult bridge building may be among Catholics themselves, and their disparate visions of what the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was about and what further reforms the Church may need.

Taking the time to embrace and affirm the weak, the disabled, the sick, and the poor: Francis makes clear that people, in all their many needs, and not a schedule or a protocol or some kind of papal pomp, matter most to him. This surely bodes well for his service as servant of the servants of God, one of the traditional titles of popes, though not one always in evidence in papal behavior. But Francis will also have to deal with bishops and cardinals, diplomats and heads of state, and with entrenched bureaucracies all but impervious to change. A pope's compassionate heart must be accompanied by administrative acumen and a tough willingness to confront and to challenge. Francis has already been very clear and forceful in his challenge to the world economic order and its failure to respect human dignity and to serve the needs of people. His appointment of an advisory group of eight cardinals suggests that decisions to come on reform of the Roman curia will be carefully prepared and the fruit of prudent consultation. This is not a pope likely to act in solitary splendor. His decision to live in a relatively modest residence with other bishops and priests and various visitors, is a reminder that this pope is a Jesuit, and the first member of any religious order to be elected pope in more than a century and a half. Community, and the sharing of the simple things of daily life, such as meals, is a key part of life in a religious order, and Francis is making such common life a part of his life as bishop of Rome.

In addressing a group of women religious from around the world, Francis called on them to be more than aging spinsters or old maids. This widely reported comment bewildered some and annoyed others. But I suspect that he was attempting to 'translate' into feminine vocabulary an exhortation not infrequently given to members of male religious orders: be more than aging bachelors, that is, do not withdraw from the messy realities of human interaction, but be a kind of spiritual father and grandfather and brother to others, make generous service of others your priority, make your celibate chastity fruitful by giving abundantly of your time and indeed by giving your very self to those most in need. Some Catholics would like to make celibacy optional for clergy; it is not impossible that Francis will do this regarding diocesan priests, but it is extremely likely that he will continue to promote the value of the vow of chastity for the life and work of male and female religious orders.

In the Catholic calendar of the saints June 21 is the date for honoring St. Aloysius Gonzaga (1568-91), an Italian Jesuit from one of Italy's most prominent noble families. Resilient in the face of parental opposition to his desire to enter the Jesuit novitiate, the young Aloysius renounced his right as eldest son to succeed his father as marquis. Instead, as a Jesuit, he worked among poor victims of the plague in Rome, and died of illness contracted while engaged in such lowly, difficult work. One could hardly imagine a more suitable saint for a day that this year marks the first one hundred days of Francis, bishop of Rome and humble servant.