Pope Francis’ Inexhaustible Font of Words: 10 Gems From the Heart Over 10 Years
COMMENTARY: These addresses and writings need to be brought out from the storehouse of treasures on Francis’ 10th anniversary, which the Catholic Church will mark March 13.
The 10th anniversary of the election of Pope Francis (March 13) is a propitious time to review what has been a very active decade. Over the course of the next days, I will look at the pontificate from different angles.
Today: Hidden Gems.
Pope Francis is an inexhaustible font of words. He published two of the longest papal documents ever written: Evangelii Gaudium and Amoris Laetitia. He has done more than 10 interview books and a cascading river of press interviews — five major ones in recent months alone. The inevitable consequence of all this is that papal addresses barely make the secular news anymore and can only be covered in passing in the Catholic press. A lot gets missed.
Herewith then, for the 10th anniversary, are 10 hidden gems from Pope Francis.
March 14, 2013: ‘The Church Is Not an NGO’
On the day after his election, Pope Francis stressed the primacy of Christ and warned against a faith too concerned about worldly goals.
“If we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord,” the Holy Father preached to the cardinals gathered in the Sistine Chapel. “When we do not profess Jesus Christ, the saying of Léon Bloy comes to mind: ‘Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.’ When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.”
The Church risks becoming a demonic charitable organization — a warning that is relevant always and a special caution for those secular observers who think that the real priorities of Pope Francis are migration and climate change.
May 26, 2014: Address at Yad Vashem
At the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, Pope Francis gave one of his most poetic and profound addresses, a meditation on Genesis:
“Today, in this place, we hear once more the voice of God: ‘Adam, where are you?’ … ‘Adam, where are you?’ (Genesis 3:9). Where are you, O man? What have you come to? In this place, this memorial of the Shoah, we hear God’s question echo once more: ‘Adam, where are you?’ This question is charged with all the sorrow of a Father who has lost his child. The Father knew the risk of freedom; he knew that his children could be lost … yet perhaps not even the Father could imagine so great a fall, so profound an abyss! Here, before the boundless tragedy of the Holocaust, that cry — ‘Where are you?’ — echoes like a faint voice in an unfathomable abyss …”
March 19, 2016: Amoris Laetitia
The eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia appeared to many observers to contradict the teaching of Veritatis Splendor. That provoked an enormous controversy, which has largely been set aside, though not really resolved.
But the document is very long! There is much in it, including an extended meditation on St. Paul’s hymn to love (1 Corinthians 13), which many priests put to good use in marriage preparation.
Other nuggets are there, too, such as this passage, which warns that the Gospel preached without mercy is not the real Gospel:
“We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. It is true, for example, that mercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth” (311).
Nov. 20, 2016: Misericordia et Misera
The theme of mercy is so central to Pope Francis that he called an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, 2015-2016. It extended in the life of the Church the teaching of St. John Paul II, the Divine Mercy Pope. At the conclusion of the jubilee year, the Holy Father published a gem on mercy, Misericordia et Misera (Mercy and Misery), which begins with these stirring words:
“Mercy cannot become a mere parenthesis in the life of the Church; it constitutes her very existence, through which the profound truths of the Gospel are made manifest and tangible. Everything is revealed in mercy; everything is resolved in the merciful love of the Father.”
March 19, 2018: Gaudete et Exultate
Secular observers often think that Pope Francis is a political actor, advancing moderately left-wing causes while offering stalwart pro-life witness. That’s incomplete at best, sometimes wholly incorrect. On the fifth anniversary of his pontificate, the Holy Father published a letter on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, which is the mandate and mission of every Christian disciple. It aims at making Vatican II’s universal call to holiness very practical.
Consider this lovely paragraph, wherein countless readers no doubt recalled the witness of the holy women who handed on the faith in their own families:
“This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures. Here is an example: [A] woman goes shopping, she meets a neighbor and they begin to speak, and the gossip starts. But she says in her heart: ‘No, I will not speak badly of anyone.’ This is a step forward in holiness. Later, at home, one of her children wants to talk to her about his hopes and dreams, and even though she is tired, she sits down and listens with patience and love. That is another sacrifice that brings holiness. Later she experiences some anxiety, but recalling the love of the Virgin Mary, she takes her rosary and prays with faith. Yet another path of holiness. Later still, she goes out onto the street, encounters a poor person and stops to say a kind word to him. One more step” (16).
Sept. 30, 2019: Aperuit Illis
For the 1,600th anniversary of the death of St. Jerome, the great translator of the ancient biblical texts into Latin, Pope Francis declared that “the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time is to be devoted to the celebration, study and dissemination of the word of God … Sunday of the Word of God.”
Aperuit Illis (He Opened Their Minds), is an apostolic letter built around the great icon of biblical interpretation, the Risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus, the Incarnate Word interpreting God’s holy word in the Scriptures. Both the initiative of Sunday of the Word of God and this letter are true gems — and regrettably hidden. Many parishes give no attention to it at all.
Pope Francis explicitly wished to extend the decisive contribution of Pope Benedict to biblical theology in the life of the Church, writing that “Benedict’s Verbum Domini … remains fundamental.”
Dec. 1, 2019: Admirabile Signum
It is fitting that a pope whose name honors St. Francis of Assisi should write about Il Poverello’s greatest impact on Christian piety — the Nativity scene.
In Admirabile Signum (Enchanting Image), Pope Francis reflects upon the tradition of erecting Nativity scenes and offers practical advice, namely that Magi figures should not fully be present until closer to the Epiphany.
Pope Francis is not waxing nostalgic for a childhood memory; he writes to put popular piety at the service of evangelization:
“Dear brothers and sisters, the Christmas crèche is part of the precious yet demanding process of passing on the faith. Beginning in childhood, and at every stage of our lives, it teaches us to contemplate Jesus, to experience God’s love for us, to feel and believe that God is with us and that we are with him. … Like St. Francis, may we open our hearts to this simple grace, so that from our wonderment a humble prayer may arise: a prayer of thanksgiving to God, who wished to share with us his all, and thus never to leave us alone.”
March 27, 2020: Pandemic Urbi et Orbi
One of the enduring images of the pontificate is Pope Francis in an empty St. Peter’s Square, blessing a pandemic-stricken world with the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance.
His words on that occasion matched the power of the sacramental act. He took up a favorite biblical scene of Pope Benedict, Jesus asleep in the boat during the tempest on the sea. The disciples rouse Jesus. “Do you not care that we are perishing?” How many asked that same question during the pandemic. Pope Francis began with Jesus’ reply:
“‘Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?’ Faith begins when we realize we are in need of salvation. We are not self-sufficient; by ourselves we founder: [W]e need the Lord, like ancient navigators needed the stars. Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck. Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.”
April 1, 2022: Indigenous Canadians in Rome
Popes give a lot of speeches to a wide variety of groups. One of the Holy Father’s best was to groups of Indigenous Canadians in 2022. Pope Francis had spent hours with them through a week of encounters, listening to them recount their painful history in residential schools, where they were separated from their families and where abuse was widespread.
It was a moment of great delicacy and drama. Pope Francis spoke from the heart — and touched the hearts of those with him in the Vatican and those across the ocean in the most remote parts of Canada. The Holy Father is at his best when comforting the afflicted:
“In these days, a beautiful image kept coming up. You compared yourselves to the branches of a tree. Like those branches, you have spread in different directions, you have experienced various times and seasons, and you have been buffeted by powerful winds. Yet you have remained solidly anchored to your roots, which you kept strong. In this way, you have continued to bear fruit, for the branches of a tree grow high only if its roots are deep. …
“Yet that tree, rich in fruit, has experienced a tragedy that you described to me in these past days: the tragedy of being uprooted. The chain that passed on knowledge and ways of life in union with the land was broken by a colonization that lacked respect for you, tore many of you from your vital milieu and tried to conform you to another mentality. In this way, great harm was done to your identity and your culture. …
“I ask for God's forgiveness, and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry.”
June 29, 2022: Desiderio Desideravi
A year after the promulgation of Traditionis Custodes, restricting the older form of the Mass, Pope Francis published an apostolic letter, Desiderio Desideravi, the title taken from the words of Jesus at the beginning of the Last Supper, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you.”
Leaving aside polemics over the liturgy, the Holy Father presents here a vision of the liturgy that is profound and compelling — and would be warmly welcomed even by those who find themselves at odds with Pope Francis on other matters. This hidden gem is important precisely for those who are sometimes cool toward Pope Francis.
“For us a vague memory of the Last Supper would do no good. We need to be present at that Supper, to be able to hear his voice, to eat his Body and to drink his Blood. We need Him. In the Eucharist and in all the sacraments we are guaranteed the possibility of encountering the Lord Jesus and of having the power of his Paschal Mystery reach us. The salvific power of the sacrifice of Jesus, his every word, his every gesture, glance, and feeling reaches us through the celebration of the sacraments. I am Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the man possessed by demons at Capernaum, the paralytic in the house of Peter, the sinful woman pardoned, the woman afflicted by hemorrhages, the daughter of Jairus, the blind man of Jericho, Zacchaeus, Lazarus, the thief and Peter both pardoned. The Lord Jesus who dies no more, who lives forever with the signs of his Passion, continues to pardon us, to heal us, to save us with the power of the sacraments. It is the concrete way, by means of his incarnation, that he loves us. It is the way in which he satisfies his own thirst for us that he had declared from the cross” (11).
And one bonus gem:
June 29, 2013: Lumen Fidei
It’s more “hidden” than the others because many consider it a leftover from Benedict and not really part of the Francis pontificate. But it is. And he decided to make it so.
“Benedict XVI had written in his encyclical letters on charity and hope,” Pope Francis wrote at the beginning of his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (Light of Faith). “He himself had almost completed a first draft of an encyclical on faith. For this I am deeply grateful to him, and as his brother in Christ I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own. The Successor of Peter, yesterday, today and tomorrow, is always called to strengthen his brothers and sisters in the priceless treasure of that faith which God has given as a light for humanity’s path.”
Lumen Fidei is clearly Benedict’s work, completing his trilogy of encyclicals on the theological virtues, including Deus Caritas Est and Spe Salvi. It is a truly luminous document, and it is a mark of great humility that Pope Francis chose to publish it as his first encyclical. He knew well that he lacked both the literary style and theological sophistication of his predecessor. No shame there — everyone’s literary style was inferior to Benedict! That he put Benedict’s work at the service of God’s people and did not set it aside out of personal pride was a great start to the pontificate.