The Francis effect

The Francis effect

Creating change within the church and inspiring the laity

By John Walsh

“I don’t want to mislead anyone – the truth is that I am a sinner who God, in His mercy, has chosen to love in a privileged manner. … I had to learn from my errors along the way – because, to tell the truth, I made hundreds of errors – errors and sins. It would be wrong for me to say that these days I ask forgiveness for the sins and offenses that I might have committed. Today, I ask forgiveness for the sins and offenses that I did indeed commit.”
– Pope Francis

Pope Francis is an Internet and social media sensation. He has graced the cover of many magazines, including Time, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and The Advocate. He has captured the public’s imagination, resulting in a resurgence of interest in Roman Catholicism. The pope has become a cultural phenomenon, yet he disdains the fame he has achieved because of the aggression and idolization attached to it. He’s friendly, funny, unpretentious, humble (asking people to pray for him), compassionate, and genuine (what you see is what you get).

“He calls us to be our best selves … to forgive and be forgiven,” says Rev. John O’Malley, S.J., professor of theology at Georgetown University. “He teaches us the church is the loving mother of all, benign and gracious, as he fosters cooperation, friendship, participation, and reconciliation with our fellow brothers and sisters.”

pope_1crop_webEven the way people talk about the pope has changed. Jesuits and the John Carroll community, in particular, are excited.

“I didn’t expect his freedom,” says Rev. Robert Niehoff, S.J., president of John Carroll University. “I never imagined the impact his change in style would have – the red shoes are gone – and I’m amazed at his humanness. Pope Francis’ freedom and simplicity have surprised us all, and it has inspired me and even many non- Catholics. It seems everyone is talking about him and is excited by the early signs of change.”

Style and substance
Pope Francis is different from his predecessors in many ways. He’s the first Jesuit pope and the first pope who didn’t participate in the Second Vatican Council, which addressed relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world. He’s also bicultural – his parents moved from Italy to Argentina. Growing up in Buenos Aires, a sophisticated and free city, Pope Francis had a secular occupation as a chemical technician and nightclub bouncer when he was a young adult. Comparatively, other popes grew up in more clerical atmospheres.

A Jesuit provincial at age 36, Fr. Jorge Mario Bergolio had a difficult time in that role but became Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998. His style as pope is quite similar to when he was archbishop. In Buenos Aires, Fr. Bergolio lived in a modest apartment that wasn’t heated on weekends, opened the Metropolitan Cathedral to non-Catholics, and became friends with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a biophysicist and book author.

“He’s leaving behind the royal trappings of the papacy,” says Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Ph.D., professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. “His office isn’t any more elaborate than it has to be.”

The pope’s vision and priorities for the church can be seen even in the name he chose, Fr. O’Malley says. St. Francis of Assisi’s loves were the poor, peace, and nature in that order. The pope’s pastoral vision for the church is conveyed through his words and deeds.

“Saying he’s a sinner isn’t characteristic of being a pious priest,” Fr. O’Malley says. “The pope tells us to live with the smell of the sheep, meaning get out of our ivory towers. The church is a field hospital, not a tea party. It’s where the wounded come. The pope doesn’t want us to be navel-gazers. Rather, we should go where the wounded are. For the pope, the church is a big tent for sinners.

“He doesn’t view himself as the Supreme Pontiff, although he doesn’t reject that term,” Fr. O’Malley adds. “He views his role as one of a servant leader. He isn’t churchy. Rather, he’s preoccupied with healing the wounds of the people and going where he’s needed.”

The deeds of the pope symbolize change, too. He washed the feet of an incarcerated Muslim woman, called the chief rabbi of Rome when he was elected, and seeks communion with eastern and western churches. He’s also promoting dialogue, a conversation in which he encourages people to let their defenses down and their hearts speak to understand other faiths because he strives for Christian unity.

Pope Francis also is moving away from the rigid culture war that has gripped the U.S. for decades, moving toward a “poor church for the poor” message, Imperatori-Lee says.

“Hope, forgiveness, humility, and joy – these are themes of the gospel he wants the church to be associated with,” she says.

The pope gives a thumbs up to a group of John Carroll students who traveled to Rome during spring break in March.

The pope gives a thumbs up to a group of John Carroll students who traveled to Rome during spring break in March.

Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at Harvard University, notes Pope Francis seeks to shape a practical ecclesiology, which is the basis for the church’s social ministry. As such, the pope has identified two great problems in society – unemployed youths and lonely elderly.

“The pope’s pastoral style is to proactively go out from behind church doors to reach people and not wait for problems to come to the church,” Fr. Hehir says.

Such face-to-face encounters humanize the church: the pope riding in an open Jeep; embracing people; and having dinner and meetings with Jews, atheists, widows and children.

“He recognizes human failings and frailty,” Imperatori-Lee says. “He’s a person with such warmth and accessibility. He makes his ego smaller so Jesus can be magnified. Hope is in the culture of encounter, which breaks down barriers and creates friendships. The pope is shifting the focus away from him toward the gospel messages.”

The next phase
The pope is also ushering in a new phase of the world church.

“The church doesn’t need to be uniform to be unified – we can still maintain our cultural identities,” Imperatori-Lee says, adding that Mass is different in regions of the U.S. and world. “Different cultures have different views of church. These differences aren’t wrong, they’re just different.”

Pope Francis also is embracing collegiality and power-sharing by assigning eight cardinals – some of whom aren’t European – to analyze how the church functions. He has given the bishops the freedom to make administrative, financial, and management changes in the Roman Curia, the administrative apparatus of the Holy See and the central governing body through which the pope conducts the business of the church. The Curia has changed considerably in terms of attitude, ethos, and the environment in Rome, and those changes could be the biggest in church structure in hundreds of years.

Furthermore, the pope is calling for a more decentralized, inclusive church. As such, the Synod of Bishops, which helps the pope govern the church through its counsel, is undergoing a significant change as well. He’s expanding the role of the Synod and doesn’t expect all bishops to speak with one voice, encouraging them to debate.

Social ministry
When it comes to social ministry, the pope is influenced by Vatican II, specifically Gaudium et Spes, one of the four Apostolic Constitutions, which addresses how the church reacts to the modern world. The document strengthens the church’s moral dimensions about issues such as labor and politics, advocating its voice in the public order. The pope, who’s rooted solidly in Catholic social teaching, wants the church to come together ecclesiastically, morally, and pastorally. He emphasizes the biblical messages regarding society’s obligation to the poor, common good, and the dignity of people.

“We must be attentive to the cry of the poor,” Fr. Hehir says, adding the pope wants to analyze structural reasons that separate the rich and poor.

Pope Francis brings a new balance to societal issues – such as bioethics, inequality, and poverty – and will keep them central to his work, Fr. Hehir says.


The Papacy: One Year later
In commemoration of the first anniversary of the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis, the Cardinal Suenens Center at John Carroll, which is directed by Doris Donnelly, Ph.D., presented a conference titled “The Papacy: One Year Later” March 14 and 15. Generous support was provided by Mrs. Barbara Schubert ’62, ’67G, ’80G, The Jack ’56 and Mary Jane ’91, ’94G Breen Chair in Catholic Systematic Theology, and The Institute of Catholic Studies. Presenters included:

Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice
of Religion and Public Life at Harvard University, who spoke about the influence of the pope on the U.S. social agenda;

Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Ph.D., professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, who spoke about the papacy from the perspective of a Cuban- American theologian, mother, and wife;

Rev. Robert Niehoff, S.J., president of John Carroll University, who spoke about the pope as a Jesuit provincial in the 1970s; and

Rev. John O’Malley, S.J., professor of theology at Georgetown University, who spoke about the hope the pope brings to the world.

Life-changing experiences
Considering how different Pope Francis is compared to previous popes, it’s helpful to consider his background to understand his commitment to justice better. His rise to the papacy is one of pain, struggle, and grace – both personal and communal. During the 1970s, he was a young Jesuit provincial for six years in Argentina who was appointed to change the direction of the province from where his predecessor, Fr. Ricardo O’Farrell, S.J., was taking it, as well as help settle the unrest in it, according to Paul Vallely, who wrote the book “Pope Francis: Untying the Knots.”

Some have accused the pope of allowing two Jesuits – Fr. Orlando Yorio, S.J., and Fr. Francisco Jalics S.J., – to be arrested during a dictatorship in Argentina. During the Dirty War (1973-1983), there were human rights abuses along with thousands of political prisoners and kidnapping victims, according to Vallely’s book. People were looking to Fr. Bergolio and the archdiocese in Argentina to be more active finding missing people.

Frs. Yorio and Jalics were spending their weekends ministering to the poor in slums with activists who had Marxist leanings, and Fr. Bergolio thought the two Jesuits might incite right-wing militants to act. In 1973, Fr. Bergolio, as provincial, ordered them to cease working in the slums, but they refused. He then asked Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., Superior General of the Jesuits at the time, to dismiss the two priests from the Society of Jesus and asked the archbishop to remove their faculties to function as priests in the archdiocese. Not everyone agrees that Fr. Bergolio did enough to prevent the kidnapping of the priests or help find them afterward. Years later, Frs. Jalics and Bergolio reconciled their struggle. Fr. Yorio, who didn’t reconcile with Fr. Bergolio, died in 2000.

The backdrop of this turmoil was that the Society of Jesus was going through a transition, much like the Catholic Church as a whole, post-Vatican II. Some priests thought the Jesuits should leave their educational institutions and head into the streets to address social justice issues.

New opportunities
Reflecting on the past, Pope Francis says he made hundreds of errors and sins and asks for forgiveness for those he regretfully committed. It’s with this humility he leads the church to seek new opportunities.

So where is the church going? Some say it’s unlikely Pope Francis will write an encyclical, suggesting the bishops might write one. And much like how Pope John XXIII was influenced by the bishops before Vatican II, some believe Pope Francis will be influenced by the laity regarding the challenges ahead, such as structural changes, women’s roles, and the sexual abuse scandal.

“The ability for Pope Francis to see alternative ways of responding to our challenges is a sign of freedom and an opportunity for grace,” Fr. Niehoff says. “We only know the Holy Spirit led Fr. Bergolio and the church to this point. That is all God wants us to know – and as God leads us individually and as a church, we will see where Pope Francis takes us.” JCU

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