Apostle of Mercy

From the moment Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, stepped out onto the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time as Pope Francis the evening of March 13, 2013, the movement of the Church has consistently followed his example.

Stepping outward.

“Evangelizing pre-supposes a desire in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries,” he told the College of Cardinals in their pre-conclave meetings only days before. “Jesus says that he is at the door and knocks. Obviously, the text refers to his knocking from the outside in order to enter, but I think about the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out.”

The intervening five years have seen the first pope named Francis seeking to build up the Church by unleashing Jesus on the world. The world has responded powerfully to his simple, direct style and his prophetic application of the Gospel to 21st-century realities — whether pastoral, geopolitical or both.

In many ways, the result has been a world turned upside down. The Barque of Peter had sailed out of the safe, but waning harbor of Europe. A pope from the Southern Hemisphere asked the people to bless him before he administered his first apostolic blessing. He called for “a Church that is poor and for the poor.”

“The pope is supposed to remind us of Jesus,” Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York noted before the conclave that elected Francis. The words have proven prophetic not only in terms of Pope Francis’ magnetism and authenticity, but also his capacity to afflict and unsettle the comfortable as he carries out his Good Samaritan style of embracing the world.

“The Incarnation is at stake,” as Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, once told Our Sunday Visitor regarding Pope Francis’ approach to taking the Church into the complicated mess of people’s lives. “The incarnation is all about God entering into the messy particularity of it all.”

Francis’ taking the papacy and the Church out into the messy circumstances of the world has seen visits to the United States, the Holy Land, Africa, Asia and his native Latin America. It has seen him make public proclamations on issues ranging from the need for Christians to be joyful to the threat of environmental degradation. It has seen him embrace prisoners, the poor, the sick, the elderly, the homeless, refugees, addicts and many others the world has cast aside as disposable. It is in encountering today’s “least of these” that Pope Francis models for the world the actions that can lead us to Jesus anew.


Daily Homilies

Pope Francis appears for the first time on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in this March 13, 2013, photo. CNS photo via Paul Haring

Pope Francis sent a message about his need to live among people in community, as opposed to isolated in a palace, when he opted not to move into the papal apartment in the apostolic palace. He chose instead to remain in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where he and the other cardinals had stayed during the conclave that elected him. As a resident of the Domus, Francis has celebrated daily Mass with a rotation of visitors and Vatican employees, and portions of his homily have been made available by Vatican media on an ongoing basis. This platform has allowed him not only to exercise his ministry as a pastor preaching the daily Readings, but also reinforce his messages to people everywhere about topics such as joy (Christians must not look like they have just come from a funeral) or gossip (it’s sweet, but it makes your soul sick).

Holy Thursday, 2013

Pope Francis washes the foot of an inmate during the Holy Thursday Mass at Casal del Marmo prison in 2013. CNS photo via L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters

One of the earliest, and most vivid, indicators of what the world could expect from Pope Francis came on Holy Thursday 2013 when the new pope eschewed the traditional foot-washing of 12 retired priests in St. Peter’s Basilica and instead moved the papal Mass of the Lord’s Supper to Rome’s youth penitentiary. There he washed the feet of 12 inmates, some women, some Muslims. He would repeat this gesture on subsequent Holy Thursdays, including the sick, prisoners and other refugees among those whose feet he washed.

Making Saints

In April 2014, Pope Francis canonized two of his most beloved predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II. These saintly popes have been followed more recently by Pope Paul VI, beatified by Francis in October 2014 and whose canonization is expected later this year. While visiting Washington, D.C., in September 2015, Pope Francis canonized Father Junipero Serra, the 18th-century Spanish missionary who started many missions along the West Coast of the United States. In 2015, in conjunction with the Synod of Bishops on the family, Francis canonized the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Louis and Zélie Martin. On Sept. 4, 2016, Francis made official what Catholics the world over had insisted on for decades: the sainthood of St. Teresa of Calcutta, founder of the Missionaries of Charity, who spent decades ministering to “the poorest of the poor” in India and elsewhere.

Close to Home

While Pope Francis has not once returned to his native Argentina since his election as pope, his visits to Latin America have always carried the historic weight of the first pope of the Southern Hemisphere returning home. These have included World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (2013); Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay and Cuba (2015); Mexico (2016); Colombia (2017); and Chile and Peru (2018).

Year of Mercy, 2015-16

Pope Francis holds a baby as he visits the neonatal unit at San Giovanni Hospital in Rome in 2016.  CNS photo via L’Osservatore Romano, handout

What may be remembered as a signature moment of his papacy was announced in March 2015, that the Church would celebrate an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy from Dec. 8, 2015-Nov. 20, 2016. The beginning of the year, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council, saw the opening of Doors of Mercy at churches all around the world. Throughout the year, Pope Francis conducted his “Mercy Fridays” tradition of visiting the sick, the homeless and other groups one Friday a month.

U.S. Congress, 2015

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington in 2015. CNS photo via Paul Haring

Pope Francis became the first pope in history to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, which he did on Sept. 24, 2015, during his visit to the United States. In his address, the pope lifted up the example of four Americans — Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day — as embodying the values that Americans should strive to exemplify.

Leading the Way with Syrian Refugees, 2016

Following an April 2016 visit to Syrian refugees on the island of Lesbos, Greece, Pope Francis returned to Rome with 12 Syrian refugees on the papal plane. They have since begun new lives in Rome.

Patriarch Kirill, 2016

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Pope Francis meet in 2016 in Havana. CNS photo via Paul Haring

The meeting between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow was simply unprecedented. Not only had a pope never met a patriarch of Moscow, but the relations between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches had been strained in the decades following the end of the Cold War. Pope St. John Paul II had wanted to visit Russia but never lived to see the dream fulfilled. The meeting with Patriarch Kirill happened at the Havana Airport, in a brief layover as the pope traveled to Mexico.

The Rohingya, 2017

Pope Francis greets a young Rohingya refugee from Myanmar during a Dec. 1, 2017, interreligious and ecumenical meeting for peace in Dhaka, Bangladesh. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters

One of the more delicate diplomatic situations waded into by Pope Francis was on his late 2017 visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, fleeing violence in their native Myanmar, are now refugees in Bangladesh. While visiting Myanmar and meeting with its leaders, Francis referred only to the rights of minorities, a move that drew some criticism. In Bangladesh, however, he not only met with the Rohingya, but cast their plight in the gravest terms a Christian could muster, saying, “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.” Once again, he reminded the world that we encounter Jesus Christ in people on the peripheries.

Vatican reform:
One of Pope Francis’ first administrative moves was to adopt a proposal from the cardinals that the new pope engage in more regular consultation with the College of Cardinals in the governance of the Church. Francis created a small advisory council of eight (later nine) cardinals, composed almost entirely of the heads of dioceses on different continents. They have advised the pope on matters of governance, as well as on Vatican restructuring and reform. Over the last five years, the Vatican’s various communications structures have been consolidated under the Secretariat for Communications in 2015; several other bodies merged into the new Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, headed by U.S. Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, in 2016; and several justice, peace and charitable entities of the Vatican became the new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, headed by Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, in 2017. Pope Francis has also made several moves intended to promote greater transparency and accountability in the Vatican’s finances, including at the Institute for the Works of Religion (commonly known as the Vatican Bank).

Cardinals from the peripheries: A hallmark of the pontificate of Pope Francis has been his highlighting of the Church “at the peripheries.” In each of the four consistories he has held since 2014, Pope Francis has passed over dioceses traditionally associated with having a cardinal and has instead elevated churchmen from remote countries and dioceses, many of which have never been represented by a cardinal. Some distinctly Francis picks have included a cardinal from Haiti (elevated in 2014), from Tonga (2015), from Bangladesh (2016), and from Sweden (2017). Francis has also been more concerted about including non-Europeans, particularly representatives of Africa, Latin America and Asia, in his appointments to the College of Cardinals.

The Synod of Bishops: Instituted by Paul VI in 1965 as a way for the pope to consult bishops around the world on an ongoing basis, the Synod of Bishops has found a new, robust role under Francis. Pope Francis has called for wide consultation — facilitated by dioceses and episcopal conferences around the world — leading into lively, weeks-long gatherings of bishops to discuss pastoral challenges and the evangelizing role of the family (2014 and 2015) and anticipated gatherings in October 2018 on young people and vocational discernment and in 2019 on the particular pastoral challenges of the Amazonian region. Pope Francis has encouraged wide-ranging debate that allows the bishops participating to discern together the movements of the Holy Spirit in the various ideas and arguments presented before them.

Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors: As part of the Church’s ongoing response to sexual abuse of children and young people, Pope Francis created a Vatican commission in 2014, headed by Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, OFM Cap., of Boston, to study a range of issues related to abuse and its prevention and make recommendations to the pope. The pope renewed the commission in early 2018. Pope Francis has also instituted canonical measures for removing bishops who have neglected to keep young people safe from abusers.

Commission on women deacons: One ongoing question in the life of the Church is the role of women. Pope Francis has repeatedly called for greater inclusion of women in the decision-making responsibilities of the Church while also dismissing proposals he views as “clericalist,” i.e., making women cardinals. However, in August 2016, he created the Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate, an international group of clergy, religious and laypeople dedicated to exploring the role of women in the very early Church with an eye toward possible applications today. The commission’s work is ongoing.


‘Laudato Si’’

Building on teaching that had earned Benedict XVI the nickname “the green pope,” Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical “On Our Common Home” took issues of environmental stewardship, integral human development and climate change to a new, more formal level of the Church’s magisterial authority.

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges” (No. 14).

Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople plant an olive tree after an invocation for peace in the Vatican Gardens in June 2014. CNS photo via Cristian Gennari, pool

‘Evangelii Gaudium’

The November after his election, Pope Francis showed the world his vision for the Church in his first apostolic exhortation.

Pope Francis holds a copy of his apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium.” CNS photo via Paul Haring

“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. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, 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)” (No. 49).

‘Amoris Laetitia’

Pope Francis is pictured during the opening session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican on Oct. 5, 2015. The apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” draws conclusions from the 2014 and 2015 synods. CNS photo via Paul Haring

The fruits of two back-to-back meetings of the Synod of Bishops on the family, Pope Francis’ April 2016 apostolic exhortation on family life has drawn much commentary and also invited the entire Church into deeper reflection on how best to minister to families in the 21st century in the light of the Gospel.

“We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations” (No. 37).