Although Catholics in general like Pope Francis and support his papal style, many (bishops and priests included) do not understand him.
Francis’ words are often reduced to “sound byte” expressions (“Who am I to judge?” or “smell like the sheep” or “confession is not a torture–chamber”), pleasant and refreshing to hear.
On another level, however, there is a depth to Francis’ theology, which challenges interpretation and application. His message is read too quickly; readers must spend time with it to understand it.
Francis is calling the Church to on-going reform. He takes the letter and spirit of the Second Vatican Council and adds to it the theology and spirituality born of his experience in South America.
In a way, in Francis’ papacy, two mind-sets are in competition: European versus Latin American. They are not diametrically opposed but sometimes they differ. Those of us formed in the European model (North America included) may not recognize the revolution which Pope Francis has set before us.
He means it when he encourages “the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization” (EG 1). He is serious about “pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come” (EG 1).
Francis’ gives priority to a theology which is pastoral. He urges the Church to imitate a pattern from Jesus’ style of ministry: accept, heal, reform.
He says we are to begin by embracing a person who is broken because of poverty, disability, rejection, abuse –sin! Next do something to alleviate the hurt, by bringing healing, comfort, assurance of acceptance --recognition of the dignity of every human being as an image of God. And then add the moral, ethical, spiritual dimensions necessary for a healthy, happy life.
Recall the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery (Jn 81-11). First Jesus accepts her in spite of her sin (“Let the one without sin cast the first stone”), next he offers healing forgiveness (“Neither do I condemn you”), and then he issues his call for moral reform (“From now on do not sin any more”).
The tendency for many of us is to reverse the order; instead of accept-heal-reform, we respond with reform-heal-accept. The scribes and Pharisees challenged Jesus’ disciples because he ate with sinners and tax collectors, and Jesus said to them, “Those who are well do not need the physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (cf Mk 2:17).
Did not Vatican II reaffirm that the grief and anguish of people, especially of the poor and afflicted, are also the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ? The Council’s Pastoral Constitution On The Church In The Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) acknowledged that for Christians, “Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts” (#1).
The Council Fathers, in response to “the immensity of the hardships which still afflict a large section of humanity” suggested the creation of “some organization of the universal Church whose task it would be to arouse the Catholic community to promote the progress of areas which are in want and foster social justice between nations” (Gaudium et spes, #90).
Catholics around the world have established organizations to alleviate the hardships discussed at the Council and to promote social justice.
Pope Francis, however, is urging a response that goes beyond Church-established organizations. He insists that reaching out to the poor, abused, neglected –to anyone whose basic human rights are violated—is the responsibility not only of Church leaders and Church organizations but indeed of all the followers of Christ.
The pope’s conviction is based on Scripture (e.g., the corporal works of mercy derived from Mt 25), on the teaching of his predecessors (e.g., Pope John Paul II’s 1987 encyclical On Social Concern), on his personal experience as a pastor in the slums of Buenos Aires (e.g., he concluded that what the poor need is not charity but justice) and his participation in CELAM, the conferences held by the bishops of Latin America.
The studies, debates, compromises and conclusions of the Fifth General Conference in 2007 produced the so-called Aparecida Document, the result of the bishops’ reflecting on the journey of the Latin American churches in the midst of the lights and shadows of our times.
The bishops focused on the fundamental option for the poor, on the growing continent-wide expansion of fundamental Protestantism, on human rights violations, on migration, and on the positive and negative effects of globalization.
Scripture, Vatican II, personal experience, and the Aparecida Document are major influences in the thinking, theology, style and direction of Pope Francis. Complementing these sources of his formation are the two hours a day he spends in prayer.
Pope Francis is leading Catholics toward a recognition of their responsibility to be more than a Church of rules and rituals. He is pushing devout Catholics to become active Catholics, applying the Church’s social doctrine in deeds as well as words.
He listed in his 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (##221-37) four principles for building a society marked by peace, justice and fraternity: 1) time is greater than space; 2) unity prevails over conflict; 3) realities are more important than ideas; and 4) the whole is greater than the part.
What do these principles mean? How are we to apply them?
There is an old saying among some of the clergy that asks, “Who can know what a Jesuit is thinking?”
As challenging, unnerving, and profound as Francis’s words may be, we are on safe ground in concluding that he is thinking, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security…my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving, and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37).”
Those are the words of the pope (EG, #49)! That much we can understand –readily!