Pope Francis’ Ideas of What Is at the Heart of the Church


(photo: Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Italian television covered the personal struggle of a 20-something, non-practicing Catholic woman who was deeply moved by Pope Francis’ first two encounters with the world after his election: directly on the day of his election and via television the next day, when he presided at the cardinals’ Mass in the Sistine Chapel.

The young woman told the Italian state-run television station RAI that she felt moved to buy a Bible and was planning to read the Gospels over the weekend.

RAI caught up with her again on the following Monday, after Pope Francis’ Mass and homily at the tiny Church of St. Anna inside the Vatican walls. “What I saw in Pope Francis’ person is totally consistent with what I read in the Gospels. ... I think I now need to go back to the Church,” the young lady said.

If Pope Francis could describe his mission, the encounter recounted by RAI would be a prime example.

This early in his pontificate, many have attempted to describe Pope Francis either based on his past — sometimes even a false account of it — or on his small, widely publicized gestures.

Much has been said, positively or negatively, about his call for a Church that is “poor and for the poor” or about his liturgical decisions, such as not wearing the papal cape and stole during his first appearance, his choice of the third Eucharistic Prayer for his first solemn Mass, and his celebrating Holy Thursday Mass at a Rome juvenile detention center and kissing the feet of two females during the washing of the feet.

An equal amount of electronic ink has been shed about his decision not to wear red shoes or to wear a silver ring rather than one made of gold.

This overreading, which leads to concluding about things too early in the pontificate, either disturbing or encouraging trends, comes from the long, frequently divisive debate regarding what is at the heart of the Church.

Some would say the heart is the liturgy, since it is the “source and summit of the life and mission of the Church,” to quote from the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.

Others, instead, judge Francis through the prism of Matthew 25 and the belief that the Final Judgment is at the heart of the Church.

But for Pope Francis, the heart of the Church is, well, the heart. That is, the human heart and its transformative relationship with God’s heart.

The heart in Jesuit spirituality is a crucial concept. The Jesuits were the first to promote devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus around the world. Initially, they were accused of heresy for promoting the concept that the human heart of Jesus was a permanent living source of mercy, as revealed by God to St. Marguerite Marie Alacoque in the 17th century.

Unlike the modern reduction of the heart to the experience of feelings, which are to be followed at the expense of our brains, in the Jesuit tradition, the heart is the core of the human person, the place of the soul, where the encounter between God and man takes place. The heart is, in fact, not only the most inner sanctum of the human person, but also the root of the human will. According to the Jesuit understanding, the heart is the source of human action and endurance. Therefore, both personal conversion and solidarity begin with the human heart.

This is the concept of heart that has formed Pope Francis. In 10 years of written homilies, speeches and pastoral letters, the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires has mentioned the heart from this perspective an average of four times per occasion. In some documents, like one of his Lenten pastoral letters, the human heart is mentioned as much as 26 times.

Or 22 times in his homily during the opening Mass at the 2004 National Eucharistic Congress, where he said:

“When Peter perceives that it is the Lord, he dives into the water to arrive first. He throws himself in. He doesn’t doubt. If it is the Lord, this is what we must do. His vocation grants him the strength to exercise the Christian virtue of courage, that of boldness.”

He continued, “This is the boldness to dive into the water when I see my Lord because I find everything with Jesus. He changes our hearts and makes us audacious, bold, to defend what we’ve received, what is non-negotiable. They would rather receive martyrdom than negotiate what they had received, thus sealing the certainty of this encounter with their very lives.”

In another homily, addressed that same year to teachers from Catholic schools in the Buenos Aires Archdiocese, he said: “To those who lead these institutes, I ask for your courage, the courage to assume the responsibility of forming Christian hearts, hearts that know they have encountered Jesus Christ.”

The centrality of the human heart modeled according to the heart of Jesus has not only been an issue frequently mentioned by Pope Francis in these first weeks of his papacy. It has also been at the heart (pun intended) of his message. And it is a message he believes can be shared with other religious traditions; in fact, also in 2004, Cardinal Bergoglio was invited by the Buenos Aires Jewish community — one of the world's largest — to deliver the comment after the reading of the Scripture during the feast of Rosh Hashanah.

Commented Cardinal Bergoglio: “‘And these words, which I instruct to you this day, shall be in your heart. And you shall explain them to your sons. And you shall meditate upon them sitting in your house and walking on a journey, when lying down and when rising up’ (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). This is our memory. We cannot lose it. The fascination with idols leads us to a weakening of the memory of us all, each and every day of our lives.”

Does Pope Francis dismiss the importance of liturgical gestures, great or small? Does he believe that Catholics will only be saved by practicing social justice?

No. He is a deep lover of the Church’s liturgical traditions. He is also a strong supporter of the need to influence politics and culture, as he has shown repeatedly in his writings. But, most importantly, he believes that if there are no changed hearts, there will be no eyes with which to praise God at the sight of elegant liturgical vestments; no families to enjoy the true definition of marriage; no person to receive with love a newborn baby.  

Or, in his own words, which we are challenged to take personally: “This is the Lord’s commandment: Surrender our hearts.   Open them and believe in the Gospel of truth; not in the Gospel we’ve concocted, not in a light Gospel, not in a distilled Gospel, but in the Gospel of truth.”

Alejandro Bermudez is the Register’s Latin-America correspondent.