Understanding Pope Francis From the Inside

COMMENTARY: The best key for doing this is the Holy Father’s understanding of God’s mercy.

Pope Francis offers a blessing during a visit to the Porziuncola of St. Francis in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels on Aug. 4, 2016, in Assisi, Italy.
Pope Francis offers a blessing during a visit to the Porziuncola of St. Francis in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels on Aug. 4, 2016, in Assisi, Italy. (photo: Franco Origlia / Getty Images)

Pope St. John Paul II once told George Weigel, author of Witness to Hope, that the problem with many previous biographers was that they tried “to understand me from outside. But I can only be understood from inside.” 

The same thing might be said about and by Pope Francis, that many try to sum him up by inferences based on various things he’s done: travels, gestures, homilies, discourses, messages, letters, appointments, apostolic constitutions, encyclicals, exhortations, motu proprios, chirographs and more. 

How do we, however, best understand him from the inside? 

The best key with which to do that is his understanding of God’s mercy. 

At the very moment his pontificate began, when he accepted the election of his brother cardinals 10 years ago, he did not say merely “Accepto,” which is the way popes normally assent to their election. As he stated in the first of what have become many interviews, he told Father Antonio Spadaro he replied in Latin, “I am a sinner, but having trusted in the mercy and infinite patience of our Lord Jesus Christ and in a spirit of penance, I accept.” 

When Father Spadaro asked him in the same interview, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” the Holy Father replied, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon” with mercy. He added, “I always felt my motto, Miserando atque Eligendo (God having mercy on him, chose him), was very true for me,” that the Lord, looking upon him with merciful love, chose him first to be a priest and religious, then a bishop, and finally the successor of St. Peter. 

On Sept. 21, 1953, everything in his life changed. He stopped into his parish church and saw a priest he didn’t know, Father Carlos Duarte Ibarra and, without much forethought, he asked him to hear his confession. He exited the confessional five minutes later, intending no longer to become a chemist but a priest. He recognized that God had been waiting for him in the confessional to fill him with his mercy and that, miserando atque eligendo, was choosing him to be a minister of that mercy to others. 

That conviction has been the principal leitmotif of his Christian life, priesthood and papacy. 

In a 2010 book-length interview, El Jesuita, Cardinal Bergoglio said that an authentically Christian discipleship begins with our recognition that we’re sinners in need of salvation and the concomitant experience that that Savior looks on us with merciful love. 

“For me,” he said, “feeling oneself a sinner is one of the most beautiful things that can happen, if it leads to its ultimate consequences. … When a person becomes conscious that he is a sinner and is saved by Jesus … he discovers the greatest thing in life, that there is someone who loves him profoundly, who gave his life for him.” 

He lamented that many Catholics have, sadly, not had this fundamental Christian experience. 

“There are people who believe the right things, who have received catechesis and accepted the Christian faith in some way, but who do not have the experience of having been saved … and who therefore lack the experience of who they are. I believe that only we great sinners have this grace.” After his election, he added, “Only the one who has been touched and caressed by the tenderness of his mercy really knows the Lord.”

From the first days of his papacy, he sought to open up both the Church and the world to this grace. In his homily at the Vatican’s parish church of St. Anne on March 17, 2013, and in his meditation from his study window before a crowd of 300,000, he stressed what he discovered back on Sept. 21, 1953, saying, “The Lord never tires of forgiving: Never! It is we who tire of asking for his forgiveness. Let us ask for the grace never to tire of asking for forgiveness, because God never tires of giving his forgiveness.” 

He has said the “whole Gospel, all of Christianity,” is contained in the joy God has in forgiving us. The “most profound mission of Jesus,” he stated, “is the redemption of all of us sinners.” God’s “name” and “identity card” are mercy. Mercy is God’s “most powerful message.” It is “the very foundation of the Church’s life” and her “primary task.” It is “the true force that can save man and the world.” 

Because of these convictions, he convoked a Jubilee of Mercy in 2015-2016 to help the Church to “rediscover the meaning of the mission entrusted to her by the Lord on the day of Easter: to be a sign and an instrument of the Father’s mercy.” 

For the jubilee, he wrote two documents, The Face of Mercy and Mercy and Misery, which are both beautiful summaries of the centrality of Divine Mercy in the life and mission of the Church. During the jubilee, he instituted the “Missionaries of Mercy,” originally about 1,100 of the 410,000 priests in the world, to be “persuasive preachers of mercy” and “living signs of the Father’s readiness to welcome those in search of his forgiveness” through their dedication to hearing confessions. He gave them special faculties in the confessional to be able to remit the censures and heal the sins that are normally reserved only to the Holy See. At the end of the jubilee, he extended the faculties of willing missionaries indefinitely; and in the new apostolic constitution for the Church published last June, he made the Missionaries of the Mercy a permanent part of the structure of the Church. 

Throughout his papacy, he has given greater attention to those in greatest need of God’s mercy, to those on the “existential peripheries,” to the one lost sheep, than to the 99 still in the fold. He sees this in imitation of the Lord, who “has a certain weakness of love for those who are furthest away, who are lost. He goes in search of them.” 

That preference has occasionally been a source of frustration to the 99, who can sometimes be left feeling confused or neglected by a Pope who prioritizes meeting with non-Catholic reporters, fallen-away Catholics, critics of the Church, “LGBT” activists, pro-abortion politicians, tarred ecclesiastical figures and others rather than some cardinals or bishops who have requested appointments. The 99 can complain, to use one of Pope Francis’ most famous quips, that he has the “smell” of the lost and black sheep but not of those who are striving to follow the Good Shepherd’s voice. 

Pope Francis, however, is clearly convinced that, in doing so, he is following the lead of the One for whom he is earthly vicar. He sees this prioritization as a means of engagement with prodigal sons and daughters. “Let us always remember,” he wrote during the jubilee, “that God rejoices more when one sinner returns to the fold than when ninety-nine righteous people have no need of repentance.”

This focus on the lost sheep, however, does not mean that he is unaware of, or somehow blesses, their sins. He has regularly made a distinction between what he calls “sinners” and the “corrupt.” Sinners are those who recognize they’ve fallen and need God’s forgiveness; the “corrupt” are those who have become so hardened in their sin that they do not repent and treat vice as virtue. He has repeatedly and fiercely called the corrupt to conversion precisely so that they might receive mercy. 

“Mercy exists,” he has written, “but … if you don’t recognize yourself as a sinner, it means you don’t want to receive it.” When asked, for example, about his famous words, “Who am I to judge?” made in response to a question to a priest caught in a same-sex sexual scandal, he later clarified, “I prefer that [practicing] homosexuals come to confession, stay close to the Lord, and that we all pray together.” 

He has sought throughout his papacy to make mercy “a verb,” by receiving and sharing it. He has, like St. John Paul II before him, prioritized hearing confessions. He has often said how much he longs “to be able to walk into a church and sit down in a confessional again!” because he regards the priesthood as a call to be “ministers of mercy above all.” He has regularly appealed to the Catholic faithful to come to confession and not to be afraid. 

He has said that the Church is “called above all to be a credible witness to mercy, professing it and living it as the core of the revelation of Jesus Christ.” He has sought to be that type of credible witness throughout his priestly life and papacy. 

That’s the best way to understand him from the inside, on his own terms.