Pope Francis made his first appearance on the world stage shortly after his election, when he stood gravely on the balcony and stared out at the vast crowd of well wishers in St. Peter's Square. He said, "Good evening," and then stunned his audience when he said, "pray for me."
He turned down the papal apartments, and booked a permanent room in the Vatican residence where he could rub elbows with the staff and visitors from near and far.
He routinely offers spiritual counsel and prayers via the telephone, sends alms to the poor, and goes around the Vatican turning off lights.
Last year, during Holy Thursday, he visited prisoners in a local detention center, and washed the feel of a young Muslim.
To all those Catholics who have pondered how Pope Francis has managed to grab the attention of a distracted world, and why he does what he does, Cardinal O'Malley of Boston, the only U.S. member of the council of cardinals appointed by the Holy Father, has some answers.
I believe that Pope Francis is the quintessential Ignatian Jesuit and that is the hermeneutical key to understanding him.
Cardinal O'Malley made this point, and offered a host of related observations during a March 18 event, The Francis Factor, hosted by Archbishop William Lori and the Archdiocse of Baltimore to mark the 250th anniversary of the founding of the of local church.
To those who have wondered why Pope Francis is not inclined to emphasize hot-button issues, Cardinal O'Malley noted that Jorge Bergoglio, while still in his teens, experienced a life-changing encounter with the mercy of God. Many years later, the Argentinian still believes that the message of God's mercy must lay the groundwork for an acceptance of the inconvenient truths of faith. The Boston cardinal made this observation:
The Holy Father views morality in the context of an encounter with Christ that is triggered by mercy. The privileged locus of the encounter is the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on our sins, and thus a new morality, a correspondence to mercy, is formed.
He views this morality as a revolution. It is not a titanic effort of the will, but simply a response to a surprising, unforeseeable, and unjust mercy. Morality is not a ‘never falling down,’ but an ‘always getting up again.’
The Francis Factor also featured Helen Alvare, the pro-life leader and lawyer, Father Thomas Rosica, who leads Salt Light Television, which has produced The Francis Effect, a film about the new pope that will air April 17 at 9pm ESt on Salt + Light Television, Kerry Robinson of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management and Father Matthew Malone, the editor of America, the Jesuit publication. These commentators addressed a variety of issues, from how the pro-life movement has responded to the pope's message, to what Francis actually said about civil unions, to the need for all Catholic institutions to orient their work and outreach to missionary engagement.
Cardinal O'Malley was asked to offer reassurance that the pope was addressing the Vatican's financial problems. He resplied,
I told the Holy Father he needed a rugby player for this job and so he got someone who had been on the national rugby team for Australia, Cardinal Pell.
He also responded to a question about Pope Francis' likely impact on the current and future formation of men preparing for the priesthood..
The Holy Father has said he wants shepherds who have the smell of the sheep....I know some priests feel that the Holy Father is too hard on them. He wants us priests to be the best version of ourself, and to be priests like Chirst who laid down his life for his people.
Clericalism has been one of the terrible forces in the Church, and the Holy Father is holding up the image of Christ, the Good Shepherd, as the ideal for our priests, and that will have a good effect.
Archbishop Lori closed the evening with the reminder that Pope Francis' primary message to his flock is not to remain preoccupied with internal church debates but to bring God's mercy and the joy of the Gospel to those who suffer physical and spiritual wounds.
In his beautiful exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, the Holy Father gives us his dream... for the Church..that we will all unite in our various vocations and be missionaries, men and women, lay people, clergy, religious, deepely aware that the Lord Jesus loves us more than we can possibly imagine. Transofrmed by that love, we are called to transorm everyhting around us...to take everything in the life of the Church... and put these things totally at the service of the Gospel, to put ourselves at the service of the Gospel, so that we might bring the Gospel out to the margins.