When the conclave of cardinals elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as the Vicar of Christ, the Argentinian prelate had big shoes to fill — his two predecessors both established an outsized intellectual legacy, with major theological and philosophical works to their credit well before their pontificates commenced.
But as the Church seeks to overcome more than a generation of weak catechesis and spiritual indifference, Pope Francis has quickly revealed a knack for getting to the heart of Church teachings and drawing the public’s attention.
Pope Francis’ words have sparked a wave of eyebrow-raising headlines.
His May 18 suggestion that slander (and other forms of "gossip") was to "slap Jesus" gained surprising traction, with social media trading fragments of his remarks.
Likewise, another simple statement illuminated the need for suffering as the "refiner’s fire."
"Sometimes in our life, tears are the glasses to see Jesus," he said on April 2.
And during a May 23 reflection on the many meanings of "salt" in Scripture, he called on the congregation gathered for daily Mass at the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae residence, where he lives at the Vatican, to be "the salt of the earth" and repudiate the desultory approach of "museum-piece Christians."
The Holy Father’s homiletic style is humble and direct, punctuated with humor and simple stories that nail down the spiritual message for the day. He often injects a note of urgency, pressing his audience to serve the needy and share the faith with a spiritually apathetic world.
In his same May 23 homily, he spoke about the need to evangelize with a heart open to "transcendence." Further, while addressing a diverse congregation composed of clerics working in Vatican offices, as well as garbage collectors, he stressed the need for each Christian to find his own path within the communion of believers:
"Salt makes sense when you [use] it in order to make things more tasty. I also consider that salt stored in the bottle, with moisture, loses strength and is rendered useless.
"The salt that we have received is to be given out, to be given away, [in order] to spice things up; otherwise, it becomes bland and useless. We must ask the Lord not to [let us] become Christians with flavorless salt, with salt that stays closed in the bottle."
He noted, however, that it was not enough to simply decide to share the faith. To be effective, works of evangelization must be the fruit of prayer and grace received from frequent reception of the sacraments. Otherwise, "the salt will remain in the bottle, and we will become ‘museum-piece Christians.’"
Pope Francis did not try to define a "museum-piece Christian" — the image he employed was enough to get the message across.
His explanation May 16 of "backseat Christians" gets the point across, too: "There are backseat Christians, right? Those who are well mannered and do everything well, but they don’t know how to bring others to the Church through proclamation and apostolic zeal. Today, we can ask the Holy Spirit to give us all this apostolic fervor."
It is hard to imagine Pope Benedict XVI tossing off references to "backseat Christians." But Pope Francis easily shifts his tone from light humor to prophetic warnings.
He stirred up a frenzied debate about his interpretation of Catholic social teaching when, during a May 16 address to the non-resident ambassadors appointed to the Holy See, he took aim at the "cult of money" that dismissed ethics and God as a "nuisance" and reduced human beings to the level of "consumer goods which can be used and thrown away."
A culture reduced to bottom-line values flees a power that transcends the control of economic markets: "God is unmanageable, even dangerous," he stated bluntly.
The overall message of his new pontificate is clear.
As the Pope put it succinctly: "Do not be a ‘part-time’ Christian, at certain moments, in certain circumstances, in certain choices — be Christian at all times!"
The Holy Father’s striking ability to draw the world’s focus to the perennial challenge of avoiding gossip and then to condemn the damage wrecked by value-free global markets points to his understanding of the New Evangelization as a mission that engages every element of human existence.
The Vicar of Christ calls on believers to tackle their own vices while still embracing the freedom and hope offered through Christ’s act of redemption.
"[W]hen we are not scared by the great things, by the horizon, but also take on board the little things — humility, daily charity — the Lord confirms the word," he said during his April 25 homily at morning Mass for members of the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.
"This is Divine — it is like a tension between the great and the small," he said, noting that "Christian missionary activity" proceeds "along this path."
Watch out, "museum-piece Christians"!