Pope Francis, the Church and the Big Picture
As we approach the first anniversary of the election of Pope Francis on March 13, it’s a fitting time to step back from the whirlwind of papal activity to look at the big picture of what Pope Francis has been trying to do and what it heralds for the future.
He was elected to lead the reform of the Church. Three days after the white smoke rose, he joked with media representatives that some had suggested he take the name Hadrian, after Hadrian VI, the pope who tried to reform the Church’s central administration after the scandals that led to the Protestant Reformation.
Instead, he took the name of the greatest reformer in Church history, Francis of Assisi, who was the Lord’s instrument to rebuild his dilapidated Church as a whole, one living stone at a time.
The chief corruption in the Church, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio declared to his brother cardinals during their pre-conclave meetings, has nothing to do with banks or butlers or bumbling bureaucracies. It occurs when the Church becomes self-referential and spiritually worldly, “living within herself, of herself and for herself.”
The fundamental reform the Church needs, he continued, is to remember that she does not have a mission, but is a mission. Unless she’s coming out of herself to bring Christ and his light to those who are living in darkness on the outskirts of life, she’s simply sick.
He then told the cardinals what the Church most needed in a new leader. The “next pope” had to be a “man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to go out of herself to the existential peripheries, who helps her to be a fruitful Mother living off the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”
As it turned out, the cardinals thought their colleague from Buenos Aires fulfilled those criteria — and that papal job description aptly summarizes what Pope Francis has been trying to accomplish since his election.
In his programmatic apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Francis expressed his hopes for the missionary metamorphosis of the Church that he has been seeking to catalyze.
“I dream of a … missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”
The reform he has begun of the Curia — with the help of various new advisory councils, commissions and consultants — is intended to align the Church’s central infrastructure to support and advance the mission that is the Church, rather than to frustrate it by structures more apt for previous centuries.
But this is a reform that he wants to go far beyond the Vatican walls. He wants it to reach every Catholic. To be a disciple at all, he writes in his exhortation, is to be a “missionary disciple.” Francis wants each believer to say with him, “I am a mission on this earth; this is the reason why I am here.”
And as the whole world has been observing, Pope Francis is convinced that the reason why he was elected, why he is here, is to carry out that “sweet and comforting” task of evangelization. He has been a personification of the missionary reform of the Church, not just catechizing, but showing everyone what a missionary disciple is and does. Many of his most noteworthy changes, initiatives and actions over the last year are best understood within this missionary prism.
First, the missionary disciple is poor in spirit. Jesus sent out his apostles with no money bag, no sack, no second tunic, because he knew that if someone was going to be preaching that the poor in spirit are blessed he needed to do so by witness and not just by words. Francis’ conspicuous spiritual poverty — from his living quarters to his car and his vestments — and his call for the whole Church to become poor and for the poor are an essential part of ecclesial reform.
Second, the missionary disciple preaches and lives above all the kerygma: the Good News that Jesus loves us, gave his life for us, is living beside us, never tires of forgiving us and offers us his friendship and salvation.
So many in the world — and even in the Church — know far better what the Church is against than what she’s for. Pope Francis has been repeatedly bringing the Church and the world back to this essential proclamation of the person, teachings and love of Jesus.
His daily Mass homilies drive the Vatican news cycle each morning with a diurnal expression of that kerygma. His celebrated interviews have all been attempts to deliver the Good News to those who do not hear it through ordinary channels. And his teaching has, thankfully, been capturing the attention of many who had long tuned the Church out.
Third, the missionary disciple loves. Pope Francis’ reform of the papal almoner’s office — sending an archbishop out every day to find and help the needy — illustrates how Pope Francis wants the Church to become a worldwide eleemosynary (charity center).
Just as Jesus made the hearts of the disciples burn on the road to Emmaus, so Francis, by words and example, has sought to “warm hearts,” entering the crowds and embracing in his bosom the lame, the mentally handicapped and, unforgettably, someone with neurofibromitotic tumors.
Just as Jesus had a special love for those who were sick, ostracized and hurting, Francis has summoned us to join him in going out to “heal the wounds.” He has called the Church to be, in short, a “field hospital in battle,” a worldwide emergency room of Good Samaritans assisting the Divine Physician in nursing the injured back to health.
And just as a doctor gives preferential care to those who are most in need, so Pope Francis has been giving special attention to those on the material, spiritual or moral margins, especially those who feel they’re judged more than loved.
Fourth, the missionary disciple is creative. Pope Francis no longer can get out to the peripheries physically like he could in Buenos Aires. So he has initiated a phone apostolate, calling to console, support or thank cobblers and newspaper men, abused women, abandoned single mothers, teenagers worried about jobs, those grieving murdered family members, cloistered nuns on a feast day and even fierce critics dying of cancer.
The Word of God cannot be chained, and he’s calling us to similar apostolic imagination.
Finally, the missionary disciple is a risk taker. He’s not afraid to get “mud on his shoes,” to draw so close to the sheep as to smell like them, even to “make a mess” and commit well-meaning blunders rather than playing it too safe out of fear of making mistakes.
Pope Francis has shown this apostolic audacity, giving off-the-cuff interviews in which some things were formulated in confusing ways, washing the feet of incarcerated Muslim girls on Holy Thursday in contravention of liturgical law and even wandering into crowds and drinking strangers’ mate to the horror of his security detail.
Preaching the Gospel, however, has never been safe and clean. Jesus sent his disciples into stormy seas and as lambs among wolves.
Francis is personally showing every missionary disciple how to be bold for the Gospel.
In his first year, Pope Francis has been exactly what he advertised the next pope had to be in order to carry out the reform the Church most needed.
He hasn’t wasted any time in leading the evangelical exodus of the Church from centripetal maintenance to centrifugal mission. Whether and how quickly he succeeds will depend on how many, how wholeheartedly and how quickly Catholics join him as missionary disciples in this effort.
Father Roger Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette parish in Fall River, Massachusetts, and is national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA. He provided expert commentary for EWTN during the conclave that elected Pope Francis.