Newsmakers of 2013: Pope Francis is a man on a mission

How Pope Francis is making a quiet but radical shift to a more modern Church


Tony Gentile/Reuters

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.


Newsmakers of 2013: Pope Francis is a man on a mission

  1. May God be ever with Pope Francis on his journey.

    • False god? Can anyone prove god exists? There is a reason why they call it “blind faith”. Bible is a set of stories written from myths and stories, as none of the authors in any testament even met Moses or Jesus.

      Religion is like politics, all geared to get a “blind faith” following as they want the power and money.

      • dave777 we CHOOSE to believe in God because of our Faith not by seeing. We believe in God because its our Faith and if you need proof its all in the bible.

  2. The pope has done a lot of talking, and the PR images are terrific.

    I haven’t seen any action though. Nada.

    Until he does that….it’s still the 12th century in the Vatican

    • But like politicians, that is the idea, fresh faces and same old feel good lies. Religion like politics is about the art of deception and brainwashing. Its about herd control.

  3. I am with Emily in that I would also like to see more action on certain files (namely corruption among the curia and diocesan officials) even though I don’t really want to see changes on doctrine or dogma.

    I am surprised that the PR is so much better for this Pope though. He hasn’t said anything that the last two popes haven’t said, or done much that the last two popes haven’t done, but somehow the PR is better. Heck, the last pope was the one that wrote that “homosexual people shouldn’t be persecuted” into the catechism of the Catholic Church, but he didn’t receive any kudos for making the church more “modern”.

    I guess the press just was in the mood to change the story.

    • The only ‘doctrine or dogma’ the church should have are the words of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount and so on. No additions. Especially by Paul.

      • Well, if we just stick with the gospels that still leaves divorce kind of contentious, since Jesus had an opinion on that that progressives would not agree with. Also the whole “I am the son of God” thing, since progressives don’t really like that. Also his admonition that he has come not to bring peace but the sword, and warns that his message will turn people against each other. Also, Jesus felt it was his right and his duty to beat the crap out of people for providing services to pilgrims.

        Whereas Paul had lots of good things to say which many progressives would believe in. There is no gentile or jew, female or male, for you are all equal and brothers and sisters in Christ for example.

        • What opinion did Jesus have that ‘progressives’ [a political term] wouldn’t agree with?

          Jesus beat up money changers in the temple. What bible did YOU read?

          Paul never met Jesus….[moreover he hated women]….so whatever he thought is neither here nor there.

          If you want to be Christian….get the red ink new testament….and only go by the supposed actual words of Jesus ….typed in red.

          Ignore the rest.

    • He also wrote in the same document :” When civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right ( Love ???), neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground and irrational and violent reactions increase.” What would be the source of these distorted notions and practices ?

  4. Fresh face, lots of talk from the same old speeches, sell false hope and not reality…..

    Talk is cheap, action is divine. So far all I hear is cheap talk to keep the myths alive.

    Reality is we need birth control and religion overpopulating another for a larger flock is now obsolete, plenty of out of control breeding going on leaving lots of starving kids growing up like animals.

    We need real equality, and less misogyny from religion, why not have a woman as a Pope or Cardinal? And stop laundering mafia money, and open up the Vatican’s bank books around the world would give the world a real surprise.

    And when pedophilia and abuse happens, don’t hide it, cooperate with authorities to prosecute them, do the Godly thing and not the Satan thing. Someone might question if the devil runs the religion if the church overlooks such hanus transgressions on the people they claim to serve.

    But all I hear is cheap deceptive talk, and bet nothing changes.

  5. Pope Francis appears to be far more in tune with the realities of life. Non believers, (and I am ambivalent); must know that the words of any pontiff have an enormous impact on much of humanity. For hard core traditionalists, her at home, one feels compelled to remind them of an old Latin hymn with the line :praestet fides supplementem sensuum defectui.”, meaning “faith supplies what the senses cannot discern”. The laws in a secular democracy must follow what the senses can discern.

  6. dave777 we CHOOSE to believe in God because of our Faith not by seeing. We believe in God because its our Faith and if you need proof its all in the bible.

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