What does this Pope want to change? Us. That’s his plan, his agenda for the Church — because change is basic to faith, as he explained in a 2007 interview: “Fidelity is always a change, a blossoming, a growth. The Lord brings about a change in those who are faithful to Him.”
That’s right, us. Every last one of us. Starting now.
If his Jesuit formation, his first days in office, and his history in Argentina are any guide, the conclave elected a man who believes profoundly in the power of the Gospel to change lives and to make possible a new kind of freedom, a freedom for an encounter with Christ. It’s this freedom that he’s lived out in Argentina: free from the bishop’s opulent residence, free to take the bus to work alongside the people he served, free to cook a simple meal for himself at the end of the day. Free to kneel down and kiss the feet of the poor.
And, if the last five days are any guide, free also to set aside much of the formality and grandeur that has surrounded the papacy. Free to ride in a bus alongside his brother cardinals, free to pay his own hotel bill, to make his own phone calls,1 to speak and preach without a text. On Saturday, Francis met with members of the media who were in Rome to cover his election. Traditionally, such meetings conclude with a papal blessing of all present — Francis offered the blessing, but gave it in silence, freely departing from the standard script out of respect for the many non-believers present.
For Francis, that freedom doesn’t come from the authority of his office, but from his call to serve the people of God. He’s well aware of the dangerous hypocrisy of clericalism, and pulls no punches about it: then-Cardinal Bergoglio issued a vehement denunciation of priests who refused to baptize children of unwed mothers, saying:
These are today’s hypocrites. Those who clericalize the church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it’s baptized!
His interest is in making sure that no one, especially not anyone speaking and serving in the name of the Church, including himself, separates the people of God — that’s us — from the freedom to which we’ve been called.
Of course, belief in the freedom of discipleship is not unique to Pope Francis; Benedict XVI demonstrated his own freedom in resigning his office once he lacked the strength for it, and the summons to freedom can be heard throughout John Paul II’s papacy, especially in his repeated echo of Jesus’ call to “Be not afraid!” But in these past five days, the emphasis has changed.
Benedict’s emphasis, so often, was continuity, and so he submitted himself to the tradition of his office, allowing the rest of the Church, through him, to see the historical richness of our common faith. Francis’s emphasis — so far as we can see — is different. He does not reject continuity, but his concern is for how the message of Christ becomes effective and credible in the world beyond the Church.
If we want to know where Francis will lead the Church, we have to begin with his understanding of why the Gospel is worth believing in. That’s going to be frustrating when we want to know what decisions he’s planning to make about any number of pressing issues, ranging from who can be ordained to how he might reform the Curia.
Pope Francis highlighted that exact frustration in his encounter with the media, acknowledging how hard they had been working over the past week and pointing out the special difficulty of covering the Church:
[Ecclesiastical events] do have one particular underlying feature: they follow a pattern which does not readily correspond to the “worldly” categories which we are accustomed to use, and so it is not easy to interpret and communicate them to a wider and more varied public. [… The Church’s] nature is not essentially political but spiritual: the Church is the People of God, the Holy People of God making its way to encounter Jesus Christ. Only from this perspective can a satisfactory account be given of the Church’s life and activity.
There are lots of problems with predicting a papacy from a “to do” list. First, it tends to imagine that the new pope can change things on a whim, without having to consult anyone or achieve even a minimal degree of consensus. Second, it treats these issues as if they are planks in a party platform, to be adopted or rejected as seems expedient, rather than parts of a whole. Third, while the response to a given problem may seem obvious from a particular social context, the pope has responsibility for the most global and multicultural institution on earth.
The biggest missing piece in all of this is belief. It’s difficult to describe from the unbiased perspective of good journalism (as Francis acknowledged), but the fact of the matter is that we Catholics and our pope actually believe that God has something to say about all of these decisions. It’s never just a matter of what strategy might best fix whatever problem seems most critical at the moment. The pope is actually trying to listen in prayer and in consultation, to discern the will of the living God and the movement of God’s Spirit in the Church in light both of two thousand years of tradition and the increasingly complex needs and concerns of our modern world.
So how does Francis understand those needs and concerns, and what does he believe the Gospel has to offer in response? Let me suggest a few themes, drawn principally from his time as cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Many of the stories introducing Francis from his time as bishop focus on his love for Christ poor, for the simplicity of evangelical poverty, and for the poor themselves. They tell of his frequent visits to the slums of the city (by bus, of course) to be with his people there. In describing his choice of the name Francis he concluded: “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!” He marries this love of poverty with a clear-sighted understanding of its birth from structures of injustice, pointing out that human rights are violated not only by physical and political violence, but “also by unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities.”
At the same time, he maintains the priority of the transforming message of the Gospel as the source of the mission of justice. In his (brief!) homily to the cardinals the day after his election, he reminded them that “we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church.”2
He understands the Church to be on mission, to be sent out into the world, beyond its own walls, to announce the Gospel and plant the seeds of change. In his pre-conclave speech to his brother cardinals, and in a widely cited 2012 interview, he named being “self-referential” as the great danger facing the church in our day. He is willing to risk the Church’s appearance of security and self-assurance in order to restore its external orientation:
We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a Church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a Church becomes like this, it grows sick. It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But if the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out onto the streets and a sick withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first one.
That willingness to risk accidents sometimes led then-Cardinal Bergoglio to speak forcefully on social issues, which draws both praise and critique. Within hours of his election, his opposition to same-sex marriage and adoption in Argentina was already being critiqued and parsed, with the money quote being his description of the proposed law as “a destructive attack on God’s plan.” The president of Argentina fired back saying that his position was reminiscent of the “time of the Crusades.” While other sources suggested that he is open to the possibility of civil unions, that openness did not moderate his tone in the public debate. However, his capacity for fiery public rhetoric has been deployed for other causes as well — the focus on economic justice already noted, and also in calling attention to the horror of human trafficking:
In this city, women and girls are kidnapped and subjected to the use and abuse of their body; they are destroyed in their dignity. The human flesh that Jesus assumed and for which He died is worth less than the flesh of a house-pet.
We can see some of these themes come together, along with his overarching conviction that it is discipleship and personal transformation that fuels the transformation of the world in his 2013 Lenten letter to his diocese of Buenos Aires. He begins with a catalog of social sins, including both violence and the “tyrannical rule of money” and the “destruction of dignified work” and confesses that “our errors and sins as Church are not beyond this analysis.” And he asks: “Does it make sense to try to change all this? Can we do anything against this?”
He answers yes. Not because he has a plan for a better society, or a strategy to reform the injustices he decries. He answers yes because he believes in the change that begins when we “admit that something inside us is not going well (in society or in the Church) — to change, to turn around, to be converted.” And this is the thing about Christianity, this is the “not” of Catholicism not being an NGO, it’s this: the change that achieves justice doesn’t begin with a list of problems to fix; it begins with an encounter with the mercy that changes lives.
What does Pope Francis want to change? Us. Each one of us, and all of us together, and through us the world. His own life, especially his simplicity and poverty, have in these first days of his papacy begun to testify to the possibility of a life transformed by fidelity to the radical demands of the Gospel.
Such “fidelity is always a change, a blossoming, a growth,” says Francis. And it has only just begun.
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- To the Jesuit superior general, as it turns out, resulting in a very confused switchboard operator. The story’s here, and there’s video too. ↩
- His concern to maintain the priority of the clear profession of Christ over analysis and critique of structures has led to a complicated relationship with some aspects of liberation theology, but the reality of desire for justice and love for the poor in his life cannot be doubted. ↩