Pope Francis, Two Years On
On March 13, 2013, the election of Jorge Bergoglio, S.J. as pope was greeted with a frenzy of expectations that has become somewhat calmer over the past two years, but only somewhat, and with ample possibilities for renewed frenzy. Pope Francis enkindles many hopes, hopes for a more merciful Church, hopes for a more inclusive and diverse Church, hopes for a Church that is a voice for the voiceless, a prophetic Church that stands with and for the poor, the marginalized, the underpaid, the exploited, the victims of war and violence and abuse, a Church 'reformed' and one that does not inflict wounds where what is needed is healing, but rather a Church that is a field hospital among the people, a Church that brings good news, not harsh rules and multiple means to exclude. Reaching out to all peoples, Pope Francis ignites desires across the globe for a better world, especially a world where there is an equitable distribution of resources, a distribution based on the need of the many and not on the greed of a few.
A few years back when the Big Dig was underway in Boston, and way, way behind schedule, a billboard reminded drivers and pedestrians of the adage, Rome was not built in a day. One could add to this something often said of ecclesiastical Rome, i.e., that it thinks in centuries. Looked at in these ways, the first two years of the current papacy have seen a lot happen: from a synod with real debate and without a foregone conclusion about issues that some thought were closed to discussion; to financial accountability at the Vatican where there was much unholy secrecy; to the naming of cardinals from the small places at the ends of the earth; to repeated exhortations to clergy to put aside power-hungry, greedy careerism, and to get their hands dirty in serving the poor; to a pope who really is humble, and not solely in appearances or lifestyle; to a pope who recognizes a great need for prayerful discernment and for consultation before decision-making.
Some Catholic bishops have sought to focus attention on a short list of what they believe are the litmus tests of an authentic Catholic, often norms having to do principally with sexuality in its various manifestations. Though Pope Francis may not directly challenge his episcopal colleagues in these matters, he does teach and preach and insistently return to other norms for litmus tests of a serious Catholic, norms drawn from Scripture texts such as Matthew 25: 31-46. In that passage Jesus makes absolutely clear that an authentic disciple of his must feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned. Francis applies these norms to the world of the 21st century, and he insists that the growing inequality that impoverishes the many while the few grow ever richer must be reversed. He says this is various ways, and in connection with many specific policy issues, but the heart of the matter remains the same: either one is with and for the poor or one is not an authentic disciple of Jesus.
Pope Francis has a certain style, and style matters a lot for a bishop of Rome. Compared to most earlier popes, Francis is more at ease with a rather informal manner or way of doing things. He is happy to discard prepared texts and to speak spontaneously; he relishes news conferences and interviews; in St. Peter's Square he appears a bit bored with long, formal ceremonies, but he comes much more alive when he can mingle with the people, hugging them, chatting with them, taking time for them to take pictures with him. As for publishing official papal pronouncements, Francis has done some of this, and he apparently has in process an encyclical on the environment and related issues. But whereas Benedict XVI was a prolific scholar, a well-published theologian, someone one easily pictured alone at a desk in a book-filled office, Francis is more easily imagined at a parish fiesta laughing, eating, and talking with average people, and with the poor.
With a visit to the U.S. on the horizon, one may wonder what Francis will have to say to the American Catholic Church as well as to a much wider audience. Scheduled to address the US Congress, a first for a pope, Francis will break new ground in what papal visits to this country involve. Given the priorities Francis has reiterated many times in these past two years, he may exhort the U.S. to adopt more just and compassionate policies on immigrants; he may appeal for an abolition of the death penalty and for a more human humane treatment of the imprisoned; he may praise efforts to guarantee universal access to healthcare regardless of ability to pay; he may strongly criticize American capitalism and its failures to produce anything remotely like a fair distribution of resources; he may insist in various ways on placing the common good ahead of individual greed. Pope Francis may also build on his success in facilitating better relations between the U.S. and Cuba to now call on the U.S. to become a better neighbor for all of Latin America.
Pope Francis has declared Archbishop Oscar Romero to be a martyr, thus clearing the way for Romero to be beatified. Though Romero courageously gave his life for the poor of El Salvador, right-wing voices have sought for some 35 years to tarnish his reputation. Pope Francis has defended the Christ-like Romero in a way that John Paul II and Benedict XVI did not or could not. For those that see important and live-giving differences between Francis and his immediate predecessors, formal recognition of Romero as a martyr is an example. Yet Francis also affirms certain continuities with, and great respect for, his predecessors.
As Francis begins his third year as bishop of Rome, let us hope that he will continue to courageously promote an inclusive, merciful Church, and a world in which the common good prevails.