When Pia de Solenni, a Seattle-based Catholic moral theologian, heard that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires had been elected pope, she studied his legacy. She was impressed by what she found, just as Catholic Americans would be over the course of the next 12 months, as they became better acquainted with the Church’s new leader.
The Church’s first Latin-American pope had lived a “simple life and practiced evangelization in a concrete and tangible way: by hitting the pavement,” Solenni noted in a March 2013 blog post, which described his ministry in Buenos Aires as “shoe-leather evangelization.”
A year later, as Solenni continues to study Pope Francis’ media interviews, official papal documents and initiatives, she sees no reason to alter her early take on his methods.
“The last two popes provided a solid foundation on Church teaching [and asked us to put them in practice]. Now, Pope Francis is asking us to put those teachings into practice [more],” she told the Register.
That message has been a wake-up call for many people in the pews who had given up their efforts to engage lapsed Catholics and the unchurched, including family members, or faltered in their service to the poor.
Francis’ simple style of life and his description of the Church as a “field hospital” for the spiritually and physically wounded, combined with his efforts to reform the Vatican Curia and finances, have inspired great excitement in the Church.
His actions and statements have fired expectations that this appealing everyman captaining the barque of Peter is a visionary determined to set the 21st-century Church on a course of dynamic missionary engagement.
Yet Pope Francis himself has warned his admirers around the globe not to mythologize him.
“The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps well and has friends like everyone else — a normal person,” he said, during a recent interview with Corriere della Sera, an Italian newspaper.
A Call to Mission
The Holy Father has urged Catholics to set aside politicized moral debates that have become disconnected from their biblical origins and personal grievances against the Church. Instead, he asks each believer — cardinals and laymen and women, men and women religious and pastors — to deepen their friendship with Christ and rediscover “The Joy of the Gospel,” as he named his first apostolic exhortation.
This call to mission has been felt in the Curia, where cardinals and other officials engaged in Church governance have been encouraged to hear confessions and participate in pastoral work with greater frequency.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis has appointed eight cardinals, including Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, to a council charged with helping him direct the reform of the Curia and Vatican financial institutions and refocus Church resources on the work of the New Evangelization. These are key priorities that surfaced during the deliberations of the 2013 conclave that elected Cardinal Bergoglio to succeed Pope Benedict XVI.
“One example of how seriously he is taking the renewal of the Church is the emphasis he is placing on the Synod of Bishops,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington. “He will use the synod as the mechanism to relate to the bishops around the world.”
The 2014 Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and the Family, and the 2015 general synod that will “extend that discussion to the whole Church,” said the cardinal, mark a “new scheme of things. The Pope, in communion with bishops — and the College of Bishops, always with Peter — will be taking a look at all the things the Church needs to address today. The Curia will function to implement those decisions.”
“This new approach will avoid a concentration of decision-making and authority in the Curia,” Cardinal Wuerl told the Register.
Divorced-Remarried Pastoral Challenge
But the excitement sparked by the upcoming Synod on Marriage and the Family has also exposed fissures within the Church regarding how best to address the pastoral challenge posed by divorced-and-remarried Catholics.
The open debate has included discussion of whether long-settled teaching on the indissolubility of sacramental marriage, which prohibits such Catholics from receiving the Eucharist, could be modified. This controversy has served as a reminder that Francis’ determined efforts to reach out to alienated Catholics could be subject to misinterpretation — and are thus fraught with danger.
In recent months, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has repeatedly stated that the teaching on marriage will not be changed, while Pope Francis has said the synod’s “response” must avoid the “simplification of profound things,” while reflecting “a pastoral depth.”
The Pope’s comments on this topic and other sensitive pastoral issues dealing with abortion and same-sex attraction are often taken out of context, prompting criticism of his penchant for unscripted media interviews. Yet the controversies provoked by such exchanges have also enabled him to get his message out to Catholics and others who have never read a papal encyclical, and thus initiate a dialogue that will touch hearts.
"Good shepherd that he is, the Holy Father urges us never to lose sight of individuals, unique souls, as we address controversial and challenging moral issues. He reminds us, after the heart of Christ, that to be good disciples, we must see moral questions as they touch individual people," said Father Paul Check, the director of Courage, an international apostolate that supports persons with same-sex attraction who seek to live according to Church teaching.
In his March 5 interview with Corriere della Sera, the Holy Father was asked why, in his public statements, he didn’t “appeal to the so-called ‘non-negotiable’ values, especially in bioethics and sexual morality.”
“I have never understood the expression ‘non-negotiable values,’” Pope Francis responded.
“I can’t say that, of the fingers of a hand, there is one less useful than the rest.”
‘Down-to-Earth but Deeply Spiritual’
The blunt remark offered a clear example of the Pope’s tendency to set aside hot-button issues that are often debated without reference to Jesus Christ and steer the conversation back to the heart of the Gospel message.
“His single-minded focus on the kerygma, the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and on evangelization is down-to-earth but deeply spiritual,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore told the Register, noting that the Pope wants to counter the tendency of modern Catholics “to negotiate” the terms of their faith.
“It has helped me, as a bishop, to make sure that everything I do is at the service of evangelization.”
John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America, echoed that point in his commentary for the Register that marked the new Francis' first anniversary.
"Pope Francis has encouraged American Catholics to move past a divide that has threatened the American Church," said Garvey, noting that many of the faithful had come to believe that they must choose between "liberal" church teachings on social justice matters, and "conservative" precepts dealing with moral doctrine.
" He has forced the media to seek a more nuanced approach for describing the enigma that is the Catholic Church. This big step toward a restored sense of our fundamental unity in Christ is the greatest achievement of Francis’s papacy so far."
Tim Gray, the president of the Denver-based Augustine Institute, which offers graduate degrees in sacred Scripture, evangelization and catechesis, said that Pope Francis is shaking up the Church, in part because he is offering something “unique.”
“As the world becomes more worldly, our tendency is to withdraw from it and circle the wagons,” said Gray. “Jesus summoned Israel to love the Romans and to love their enemies. And Pope Francis is saying that we have to love the world if we are to be in mission to the world and witness to it.”
On March 6, the Pew Research Center released the results of a study that confirmed Pope Francis’ popularity with many Catholics, but also concluded that the enthusiasm had not yet translated to higher Mass attendance.
Those in Church ministry acknowledge that local dioceses and parishes must directly engage and welcome lapsed Catholics who are ready to give the Church another hearing.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register that pastors and ordinary Catholics should take their cue from the Pope’s own style of shoe-leather evangelization.
“Our Holy Father is asking us to attend to how the teachings are being heard. We are not asked to change the teachings, but to proclaim them in a solid pastoral way that begins with listening and observing,” said Archbishop Kurtz, who will join Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York at a March 13 Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to mark the first anniversary of Pope Francis’ election.
And on March 11, the bishops serving on the bishops’ conference’s administrative committee released a statement hailing Pope Francis’ distinctive papal approach to proclaiming the message of Christ.
“In this way, the Holy Father has brought to light new dimensions of the Petrine ministry and added new life to the office he holds,” said the committee’s bishops, who were meeting in Washington. “His constant outreach to the alienated, his emphasis on mercy and his sheer humanity have served as an inspiration not only to Catholics, but also to other Christians and people of goodwill around the globe.”
Added the bishops, “On this first anniversary of his election, the Administrative Committee invites the prayers of all the faithful, that Christ our Lord will bless Pope Francis and grant him many years of fruitful ministry as Bishop of Rome, as the Servant of the Servants of God.”
Focusing on People First
Curtis Martin, the president and founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, has witnessed Pope Francis’ impact on college students, who value his authenticity and willingness to change Vatican protocol by sending alms to the needy or telephoning those who seek his counsel.
Francis is beginning to heal the wounds that have kept so many away from the Church, said Martin, who is working to get more boots on the ground in the tough missionary terrain of U.S. college campuses.
“The Pope wants the Church to remember that it’s a hospital for sinners and not a museum for saints,” Martin told the Register, echoing Francis’ remarks about “museum-piece Christians” who stand apart from the rough and tumble of 21st-century missionary work.
Added Martin, “He has reaffirmed Church teaching, but has emphasized that we must imitate Christ’s love.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.