Ethics & Public Policy Center

Pope Francis’s First Year

Published in National Review Online on March 13, 2014


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


Looking a bit uncomfortable in the spotlights, Jorge Mario Bergoglio came out on the central loggia of the Vatican basilica on the evening of March 13, 2013, and introduced himself to his new diocese as a man from “the end of the earth.” Less than nine months later, this hitherto obscure, former archbishop of Buenos Aires, who had been rescued from ecclesiastical oblivion in the early 1990s by John Paul II, was on the cover of Time, celebrated around the world as the dominant personality of 2013. Now, a full year into his pontificate, Pope Francis continues to be a kind of papal Rorschach blot onto which Catholics of all points of view, as well as politicians and pundits, project their aspirations and fears for the Catholic Church and its place in the 21st-century scheme of things.

A year after John Paul II was elected, the Church and the world knew that this “man from a far country” (as he had described himself the night of his election) was a formidable intellect and a charismatic leader who could rally millions of ordinary souls to a great cause — their own interior liberation from the Communist culture of the lie. A year into the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the world and the Church knew that it would be in continuity with that of Joseph Ratzinger’s predecessor; the retrenchment that some feared, and for which others hoped, would not take place, and Benedict XVI, like John Paul II, would secure the Church’s understanding of the Second Vatican Council as a Council of reform in continuity with the great tradition of the Church.

A year into the papacy of Pope Francis, however, the world and the Church continue to wonder just what this pontificate will bring — and no small part of that puzzlement, it seems to me, has to do with the “narrativizing of the pope” that has been underway in much of the world media for the better part of a year. Perhaps now, on this first anniversary of his election to the Chair of Peter, it’s time to set aside the narratives and look at what the pope has actually said and done, in order to get a better sense of where he may be leading more than 1.2 billion Catholics and those outside the Catholic Church who look to Francis for leadership and inspiration.

His most significant papal document to date, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, showed him to be a man completely committed to reenergizing the Church as a missionary enterprise. This evangelical vision of the Catholic future, which was the dominant motif of the last half of the pontificate of John Paul II, is also in continuity with a regularly repeated injunction of Benedict XVI: The days of culturally transmitted Catholicism, or what some might call Catholicism by osmosis, are over and done with. But while Benedict XVI evinced a certain nostalgia for the culturally embedded Catholicism of his Bavarian childhood, Pope Francis has made it quite clear that there is to be no yearning for what is now irretrievably past. At Vatican II, the Catholic Church came to grips with the fact that it could no longer be a politically kept institution; the days of religious establishment were over. Pope Francis is insisting that the Church confront the fact that it can no longer be a culturally kept institution, given the toxicity of postmodern Western culture and its aggressive distaste for Biblical religion.

Six years before his election to the papacy, Jorge Mario Bergoglio led the bishops of Latin America to a new understanding of the impossibility of “kept” Catholicism, at the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, which met at the Marian shrine of Aparecida, Brazil. The closing document of the Aparecida conference, read through the prism of the past year, now looks like a preview of the evangelical radicalism of Pope Francis’s papacy. For the bishops at Aparecida pulled no punches, writing that “a Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of faith, to occasional participation in some sacraments, to the repetition of doctrinal principles, to bland or nervous moralizing . . . [cannot] withstand the trials of time.”

If the Aparecida document had been better known north of the Rio Grande, Catholics who have been shocked by some of Francis’s more stinging comments about aspects of Catholic life and practice might not have been so surprised. In any event, Aparecida was a matter not primarily of scolding but of summoning. For the passage in the Aparecida document just cited was immediately followed by a call to conversion: “We must all start again from Christ.” Every Catholic — the pope, the cardinals, bishops and priests and those in consecrated life, and lay Catholics in a myriad of circumstances — must recognize that we were all baptized into a missionary vocation and that we all enter mission territory every day.

This missionary or evangelical thrust is the framework in which Francis’s reform of the papacy, the Roman Curia, clerical life, and Vatican finances begins to come into focus.

For all his high media profile throughout the world, Pope Francis is actually committed to a certain downsizing of the papacy. His recent complaint about the image of the pope as “Superman,” in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, is not simply a matter of Bergoglio’s objecting to journalists’ turning him into something he knows he isn’t; it reflects his sense that, when the pope is the sole center of attention in matters Catholic, all others are getting a pass on their evangelical responsibilities. Much attention has been paid, over the past year, to what are essentially symbolic aspects of this papal downsizing: Francis’s residence in what was once known in media-speak as “the five-star Vatican hotel” but is now habitually referred to as the “humble Vatican guesthouse”; his more spare approach to papal liturgy; the simplicity of his ring and pectoral cross; his use of a Ford rather than a Mercedes. These things have their (modest) importance. But what really counts are the things that are rarely noted, much less commented upon: the dramatic decline in the role of the pope’s personal secretary, which had grown exponentially in recent pontificates; the pope’s insistence that, while he is the decider, things to be decided must be thrashed out thoroughly and openly before he decides, and that the thrashing must go on with him present, primus inter pares, but by no means the only voice in the debate; his willingness to hear correction, and to change because of it; his determination to make the world synod of bishops something more than a platform for enervating episcopal rhetoric.

At the same time, this papal downsizer has shown himself to be a deadly serious reformer of the Roman Curia: a task, he told the Corriere, that was the primary concern of the conclave that elected him. His creation of a new secretariat for the economy as one of the premier offices of the Curia, and his naming of the no-nonsense Australian cardinal George Pell to head it, is little less than an earthquake in the structure of the Holy See. Finance, personnel policy, and administrative oversight have been taken away from what Francis evidently regards as a sclerotic Italian bureaucracy. And those responsibilities have been given to what is expected to be a lean (and, when necessary, mean) operation, which in its crucial first years will be headed by one of the toughest and shrewdest of churchmen, who (not unlike Francis) combines a priest’s heart with a keen nose for corruption.

Francis’s challenge to his newly named cardinals — that they think of themselves as servants, not courtiers — is another expression of his determination to challenge everyone in the Church to greater evangelical fervor. So was his recent charge, to the Vatican office that helps the pope select bishops, to search widely — perhaps more widely than has been the case in the past — to find for Catholicism the local leaders it needs: men of proven evangelical determination, who can call both priests and people to live their missionary vocation more actively, often in difficult cultural circumstances.

Which brings us to something else that ought to have been learned about Pope Francis over the past year: this is a man with a deep, compassionate, yet searching sense of the profound wounds that postmodern culture inflicts on individuals and societies. Many regarded it as something of a throwaway line when, in one of his daily Mass sermons, the pope made a positive reference to Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel Lord of the World, the first of the 20th-century literary dystopias. But the more closely one reads Pope Francis, especially in those daily homilies, the more one begins to get the sense that Benson’s vision, of a world in which power-madness and aggressive secularism masquerade as reason and compassion, is quite close to Bergoglio’s vision of what he has sometimes described as the idolatries of our time. The pope has spoken passionately about those who have been left behind, materially, in the world economy. But he has spoken just as passionately about the spiritual and cultural impoverishment that comes from imagining that everything in the human condition is plastic, malleable, and subject to change by means of human willfulness.

Is there a contradiction here? How can the pope who has charmed the world with his unbuttoned style, his friendliness, his broad smile, think in such dark terms about the times in which he lives? I suggest it’s because he is, at bottom, a radically converted Christian disciple who knows that Christ has conquered — a believer who knows, in other words, how the human story is going to turn out, however painful the journey to the Kingdom of God and the Wedding Feast of the Lamb may be. That knowledge is what gives Francis, and ought to give every Christian, the courage to see things as they are, however grim the circumstances — and to contend with what the Bible would call the “principalities and powers” with good cheer, even with a certain joie de combat.

He has said on many occasions that he is convinced that this is the “season of mercy”: a formula that has been misunderstood to mean that the Church is rethinking those of its moral teachings that cut most deeply against the grain of postmodern consciousness. Closer examination of Bergoglio’s life, his ministry as priest and bishop, and the first year of his papacy suggests that a different, deeper, and ultimately evangelical reading of this “season of mercy” is in order.

The pope knows that, amid the polymorphous perversities of postmodernity and the pain they cause, the Church attracts primarily by witness, not by argument. To those who imagine themselves beyond the reach of compassion, the Church offers the experience of the divine mercy. No one, the pope insists, is beyond the reach of God’s power to forgive. That experience of mercy, in turn, opens up its recipient to the truths the Church proposes: the truths the Church believes make for the human happiness that is being eroded by the idolatries of the age, especially the idolatry of the imperial autonomous Self. Mercy and truth are not antinomies, in the Catholic scheme of things. Mercy and truth are two entwined dimensions of God’s reach into history, and into individual lives.

Time read the Pope’s self-query, “Who am I to judge?” as the opening wedge to that long-awaited concession by the Catholic Church that it had been wrong, all along, about the sexual revolution. That is not what the pope thinks, having gone out of his way in Corriere della Sera to praise the “genius” and “courage” of Pope Paul VI for “applying a cultural brake” in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, for standing fast against the tidal wave of Sixties permissivism that has led to so much unhappiness and sorrow, and for opposing “present and future neo-Malthusianism.” When Francis asked, “Who am I to judge?” he was responding as a pastor to the particular situation of a man experiencing same-sex attraction. And as the pope said, if that man was trying, with the grace of God, to live an honest and chaste life, he ought not be judged by his temptations, any more than anyone else in this world of endless temptation. Mercy and truth, as always, go together. For the mercy that tells us that we are not beyond the pale of forgiveness is the mercy that leads us into the truths that make for genuine human happiness.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a very old-school Jesuit, and it’s clear that, as such, he is going to be pope his way, not anyone else’s — which is a matter not of ego but of the kind of classic Ignatian religious formation (stressing a stringent, ongoing, personal discernment of God’s will) that once prepared 17th-century European intellectuals to paddle canoes up Lake Huron, thousands of miles from civilization, in search of converts among the native tribes. As he has said on numerous occasions, he is a son of the Church, who believes and teaches what the Church believes and teaches. He is going to give voice to those convictions, sometimes, in ways that surprise, even shock. But he has gotten everyone’s attention, now, and as he grows in his understanding of how to use the papal megaphone that is his, it seems likely that he will deploy that singular voice to foster what he and his brother bishops called for at Aparecida in 2007: “a personal and communal encounter with Jesus Christ that raises up disciples and missionaries.”

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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