There is a renewed interest and energy in the Catholic Church, and the cause of this post-Vatican II aggiornamento is Pope Francis.
People both inside and outside the Catholic community are talking about him, about his style, about his message.
Some are negative, saying that he is undermining the authority of the papacy, especially in his calling together a group of eight cardinals to advise him on Church policy and reform of the Vatican bureaucracy. When Pope Francis challenged “unbridled capitalism,” radio-talk host Rush Limbaugh said the pope didn’t know what he was talking about. Still others lament, “He’s just style. He’s the Vatican’s PR man.”
Others praise him as “the people’s pope,” assessing his style, his words, and his example as a refreshing return to Gospel values. “He gives me hope,” is a common response to the question, “What do you think of Francis?” Some of those close to him have noted that he does not want to see a “personality cult” develop around him as did around Pope John Paul II; he wants the cult to be Christ-centered. His choice as Time’s man of the year was bitter-sweet for him.
Few of us knew that Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio was first runner-up in the conclave voting which had elected Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005. Eight years later Bergoglio’s name was seldom suggested as a possible replacement for the retiring Pope Benedict, but on March 13, 2013, he was elected with 90 out of a possible 115 votes. He accepted the office of Bishop of Rome, vicar of St. Peter, and chose the name Francis.
The information which trickles out of the secret conclave indicates that the majority of cardinals were looking for a leader who would restore Church credibility and could reform the Vatican Bank and Curia. Some of them insisted the Church needed a Gospel pope.
Pope Francis biographer Paul Vallely thinks that one of the major factors in the election of Bergoglio was a speech he made in the Synod Hall before the conclave. Each cardinal was allotted five minutes to address the assembly of voters. Vallely says that Bergoglio’s talk "lasted just three-and-a-half minutes…but it electrified the synod hall.”
Bergoglio reminded his brother cardinals that the only purpose of the Church is to go out to tell the world the good news about Jesus Christ, that the Church needed to surge forth to the peripheries, not just geographically but to the existential peripheries where people grapple with sin, injustice, ignorance and indifference to religion.
He spoke, it is said, from a few scribbled notes, but later in the day Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino of Havana, Cuba, asked Bergoglio for a copy of his remarks. The next day Bergoglio gave him a copy, and Ortega put it on his diocesan website.
In his book Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, Vallely provides a version of the talk:
“But the Church has got too wrapped up in itself. It was too navel-gazing. It had become ‘self-referential’ which had made it sick. It was suffering a 'kind of theological narcissism.’ When Jesus said, ’Behold I stand at the door and knock’ people assumed he was outside, wanting to come in. But sometimes Jesus knocks from within, wanting to be let out into the wider world. A self-referential Church wants to keep Jesus to itself, instead of letting him out to others.
“The Church is supposed to be the mysterium lunae –the mystery of the moon is that it has no light but simply reflects the light of the sun. The Church must not fool itself that it has light of its own; if it does that it falls in to what Henri de Lubac in The Splendor of the Church called the greatest of evils –spiritual worldliness. That is what happens with a self-referential Church, which refuses to go beyond itself.
“Put simply, there are two images of the Church: a Church which evangelizes and comes out of herself or a worldly Church, living within herself, of herself, for herself. The next Pope should be someone who helps the Church surge forth to the peripheries like a sweet and comforting mother who offers the joy of Jesus to the world.”
These remarks or the gist of them provide the theology/philosophy motivating Pope Francis’ agenda. When he told priests that the shepherd should smell like the sheep, he was telling them to stop being “self-referential.” When he washed the feet of twelve prisoners (two of them women) on Holy Thursday, he was going out to the peripheries. When he chose not to live in the papal apartment, he was warning against spiritual worldliness.
It would be a mistake to put all the emphasis in the Church on its pope. The focus of the Church is Jesus Christ. The pope becomes for us the mystery of the moon, reflecting the light of Christ. His speech before the conclave, reminding his brothers of the Church’s purpose are worthy of ongoing reflection and will likely serve as a helpful preamble to interpreting Pope Francis’ agenda.