On Dec. 17, Pope Francis celebrated his usual morning Mass in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace with the cardinals resident in Rome.
Across the hall from the Sistine Chapel, the Pauline is the “official” private chapel of the popes, though no recent ones have used it on a frequent basis. Its walls are dominated by two Michelangelo frescoes of the princes of the apostles — the conversion of Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus and the crucifixion of Peter on the Vatican Hill.
Michelangelo chose to portray both of them as old men. Peter was at least in his 50s at the time of his martyrdom, but Paul was still a young man. Showing both of them in old age gives a sense of endurance, of wisdom and of the burden that accompanies the apostolic office. It is a suitable chapel for a pope on his 80th birthday.
The cardinals gathered with him were full of good wishes, welcoming the celebratory respite from a Roman autumn that has brought a measure of discord to the Church. The continuing controversies over Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) are being conducted in a more fevered pitch. It is a happy birthday, but it is not a happy time.
Which is unfortunate. The grave matters at stake in Amoris Laetitia understandably obscure what we would normally celebrate on a Holy Father’s 80th birthday. And there is much to celebrate. Pope Francis is not the first pope to do much of what he does, but there is a distinctive, powerful and attractive way that he does it. Herewith then, in honor of Pope Francis’ eight decades, are eight reasons to thank God for his ministry as the Church’s universal pastor.
I. Missionary Discipleship
Blessed Pope Paul VI affirmed the permanent validity of the Church’s evangelical mission (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 1975), St. John Paul taught that “the missionary thrust therefore belongs to the very nature of the Christian life,” (Redemptoris Missio, 1990), and Benedict XVI reminded us that if Jesus came “to bring us God” (Jesus of Nazareth, 2007), we must do the same. Francis stresses the need to be “missionary disciples” constantly, warning against being “self-referential” or closed in on ourselves, encouraging us to “go out” to the farthest places, the peripheries, geographical, existential and spiritual. One of his favorite exhortations playfully uses the image from the Book of Revelation, where Jesus stands at the door and knocks. That has usually been understood as an invitation to open the door to a life of discipleship. Francis turns it around. Today, Jesus is often inside — our hearts, our families and our parishes — and is knocking to get out! To “have” Jesus means to share him with others. The rhetoric and gestures of the Holy Father are motivated by a desire to strip away whatever might impede others from meeting Jesus.
The best frame through which to understand Pope Francis was provided by the predecessor who abdicated. In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), Benedict wrote this summary of the Church’s identity: “The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her threefold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia) and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable.
“For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity that could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being” (25). How better to read Providence than to consider that after the great Christian witness (martyria) of our time, St. John Paul II, and the profound teacher of the right worship of God (leitourgia), Benedict XVI, we now have a pope whose heart is manifestly open to suffering through the practical ministry of charity (diakonia)? The manifest doctrinal and liturgical crises that plagued the Church in the 1960s and 1970s required heroic efforts to set right. In those efforts, less public attention was given to the ministry of charity, though it certainly continued. Francis corrects that imbalance.
III. Personal Encounter
The Church’s diakonia, since the time of the first deacons, has been a practical charity. Pope Francis has vehemently insisted, since his very first homily in the Sistine Chapel, that the Church cannot be another non-governmental organization, simply accomplishing various good works.
Christian charity means a personal encounter with the afflicted, with the poor. It does not mean giving money to others to do so, as much as that is needed. Much less does it mean advocating that some government or other ought to do this or that. The most dramatic moments of the Jubilee of Mercy were the Holy Father’s Friday visits to those at the margins, the suffering at the periphery. He went there to encourage those who daily comfort the afflicted in the flesh — “the wounded flesh of Christ,” as he vividly calls it.
St. John Paul was the “giant of mercy,” Pope Francis said last summer in Kraków, at a World Youth Day organized around Poland’s two great heralds of mercy. St. Faustina received the revelations of mercy in her cloister. St. John Paul carried them to the whole world. Pope Francis has given that fresh impetus. Francis will not have a 27-year pontificate that will address every aspect of the Church’s life, nor does he have the vast theological vision of Benedict, which bathes the Church in the glorious light of the faith.
Francis knows how to make one big idea tangible. For him, that is mercy. The primacy of God’s mercy has deep roots in the Tradition, and the Church is convinced that it needs to be preached with greater conviction today and experienced with greater intensity. Francis has a special gift for doing just that.
In his letter concluding the Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordia et Misera, the Holy Father wrote that the sacrament of confession has to be “put back at the center of the Christian life.” He is the pope of confession. He hears confessions on his parish visits in Rome and on overseas trips. He went to confession himself in public to offer a powerful witness. He speaks about the sacrament more than his predecessors did. He encourages priests to be generous in hearing confessions and reprimands them when they become obstacles, rather than instruments, of mercy. He has expanded the faculties of priests to lift penalties in the confessional. The emphasis on confession will be a principal impact of his pontificate.
VI. Simplicity of Life
Perhaps the most obvious difference a Latin American pope makes is the emphasis on simplicity of life for Catholics in general, and for priests and religious in particular.
In every country, there is a temptation for Churchmen to live in too much comfort — ostentatious luxury in Germany, for example — and this can be a genuine scandal for the faithful and an evangelical obstacle for those outside the Church. In poorer countries, material excess among the clergy is all the more devastating. The pope who was known in Buenos Aires as the “bishop of the slums” is fierce on this point, and it is a paternal correction many of us priests need.
A sign of the Holy Father’s determination on this point is his willingness to endure criticism when some of his choices — living at the Santa Marta guesthouse rather than the apostolic palace or using an open popemobile in Central Park — create logistical inconveniences for others and are massively more expensive. The investment would appear to be worth it; Francis’ simplicity is widely applauded and has served to practically curb a clerical taste for extravagance.
VII. Judgment Belongs to God
The signature phrase of a pontificate can come early. For St. John Paul, it was his first homily in St. Peter’s Square: “Be not afraid!” For Benedict XVI, it came the day before he was elected, when he inveighed against the “dictatorship of relativism.” For Francis, it was the first of his airborne adventures, returning from Brazil, when he said, “Who am I to judge?” The context of his remarks no longer matters; they were rapturously received around the world as a sign that the Church was getting out of the judgment business; which is more right than wrong — the Church is not in the judgment business. God alone judges, and the Church urges repentance and conversion precisely so that God might render us a favorable judgment.
Pope Francis understood that too many people, both within and without the Church, consider Christianity to be more about judgment than mercy, more about fear than love, more about constraining rules than flourishing freedom. With “Who am I to judge?” the Holy Father got their attention.
Pope Francis is very popular. It’s partly because “Who am I to judge?” comforts, rather than challenges, a culture far from God. It’s partly because vast numbers think he has cast aside the hard sayings of Jesus. It’s partly because his enthusiastic press boosters quickly bury any of his old-fashioned talk about Marian devotion or the devil.
It’s true that Pope Francis is the most popular with those who are least religious. A popular pope remains better than an unpopular pope, in terms of engaging those who might otherwise not be interested in the things of God.
Yes, everyone knows that the Holy Father causes a bit of heartburn for those who follow him most closely. He also warms the hearts of many who don’t follow Christ at all. There arises an opportunity for missionary discipleship.
is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.