What’s in a name? When a shivering, rain-soaked crowd of 100,000 gathered in St. Peter’s Square on March 13 first heard that the relatively unknown cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aries was their new Pope, it meant little more than an end to the waiting. But when Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first bishop of Rome in over a millennium to choose a pontifical name borne by none of his predecessors, announced that henceforth he would be known as Pope Francis, the response was visceral and immediately approving.
Taking the name of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most beloved figures in Catholic history, resonated deeply with popular Catholic devotion. The choice was pitch-perfect in tone, catching the mood and yearning of Francis’s Church today: Catholics, tired of legalisms and dogmatic quarrels, want a pastor, and by his name the Pope signalled that that was what they had.
It also signalled the launch of an assault on the tone of the papacy as set by his immediate predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II. Francis wears a plain cross, not pontifical jewels, and lives in a Vatican guest house, not the papal apartments, where he eats breakfast with the staff and other guests. He has condemned “the cult of money” and the suffering exacted by austerity measures in Europe, and the Church’s fixation on sexual sin. On his flight back from Brazil in July he expressed his own personal acceptance of homosexual people (“When I meet a gay person, if they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?”).
Francis came down hard in October on Germany’s Bishop of Bling, expelling Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst from his diocese of Limburg for spending a huge amount of Church money on his residence. Early in November, in a moment reminiscent of St. Francis himself that electrified onlookers, Pope Francis embraced and kissed a man terribly disfigured by disease.
By his first summer in the seat of St. Peter, as Michael Higgins, a distinguished Canadian Catholic intellectual now teaching at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., remarked, Francis had so “demystified” his office that the papacy had gone from being the house of Windsor to a Scandinavian monarchy, “from the London landau to riding a bicycle through Copenhagen.” Traditionalists have been alarmed by Francis’s indifference to papal protocol and his friendliness to outsiders, but as he approaches his 77th birthday on Dec. 17, his popularity remains stratospheric among most Catholics, and as high as that of Pope John XXIII among non-Catholics.
The change has been deliberate and far from cosmetic. He told the editor of a Jesuit journal, “I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude.”
The preliminaries Francis has set in motion before his Extraordinary Synod on the Family next October point to the possibilities for real and radical change inherent in his approach. Again on the flight back from Brazil, in remarks largely ignored in the attention given to his comments on gay people, Francis said of divorced and remarried Catholics, currently barred from receiving communion, “I believe this is a kairos moment for mercy,” meaning, in Christian terminology, a time of crisis and confusion, grace and opportunity. Participants in the synod, a meeting of bishops from around the world, have been issued 39 questions about the actual families of their dioceses and requested also to seek input from their priests and laity.
The questions are asked without any blinkers: how many of your church live in irregular unions; what do your congregants think of same-sex marriages; what pastoral care is or can be given to those living in them and to their children; do the divorced and remarried “feel marginalized or suffer from the impossibility of receiving the sacraments”; “how is God’s mercy” and the support of the Church for those people put into practice?
These are not heralds of a doctrinal revolution, although they do hold the seeds of potential clashes with a tradition-bound hierarchy appointed in the main by Francis’s predecessors. They are the instinctive responses of a pastor, one very aware of how his flock lives today, and seemingly as willing to move toward them as he wants them to come to him. In his field hospital of a Church, Pope Francis has opted for his own way of staunching the bleeding.