Pope Francis: For a poor, merciful Church

This is the final article in a series looking at the Church’s 12 most recent popes and the marks they’ve made on the Church. The series has appeared monthly throughout 2018.

Popular and controversial, innovative and traditional. Contrasts and contradictions like these have riveted attention on Pope Francis from the start of his pontificate.

Clearly he’s a pope of firsts: first pope from the Southern Hemisphere, where Christianity now accounts for well over half the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics; first pope who is a member of the Society of Jesus — the Jesuits; first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years; first to ride the subway and cook his own meals when he was head of a major archdiocese.

And the first pope to take the name “Francis.” When it became clear that he had been elected pope, the cardinal who was seated next to him said, “Do not forget the poor.”

The name came to him then: Francis of Assisi. “He is for me the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and cares for creation,” Pope Francis told journalists after the conclave, thereby sketching an agenda for himself that has brought him global recognition for his comparatively modest lifestyle, his openness in speaking his mind and his readiness to tackle current issues like climate change and nuclear deterrence.

But Pope Francis also has become a focal point of controversy. Much of it results from his 2016 document on marriage, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), and its theological rationale for giving Communion to some divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages remain valid in the eyes of the Church.

Conflicting interpretations of this document have set bishops against bishops and theologians against theologians, with the pope remaining largely silent.

Jesuit roots

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in a working-class neighborhood of Buenos Aires on Dec. 17, 1936, one of five children of Mario Jose and Regina Maria Bergoglio. His father was an Italian-born railway worker who moved to Argentina in disgust at Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in his homeland. His mother was the daughter of Italian immigrants.

When he was 17, the young man had a religious experience involving a special sense of God’s presence in his life. Eventually he joined the Jesuits, studied in Chile and Argentina, and taught in Jesuit schools. He was ordained a priest in 1969 and served as a master of novices until 1973, when he was elected provincial — regional superior — of Jesuits in Argentina.

The country was ruled by a military dictatorship busy waging “dirty war” against homegrown leftists. The Argentinian Church was divided between those who supported the regime and those who opposed it. The Jesuits, too, were split, with conflict centering on the merits of left-leaning liberation theology, and Father Bergoglio was criticized for not being radical enough.

When his term ended, he became rector of a seminary, then spent several months in Germany studying the theology of Romano Guardini. Returning to Argentina, he was a confessor and spiritual director and wrote several books, including two based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.

In 1992, Pope St. John Paul II named him auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires. By 1998, upon the death of the old archbishop, Bergoglio took over as archbishop of Buenos Aires. In February 2001, Pope John Paul made him a cardinal.

A humble cardinal

In Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio headed an archdiocese with a population of 2.5 million Catholics. But despite his high office, he became famous for his modest living arrangements — a small apartment rather than the archbishop’s residence, using public transportation and cooking for himself. His only known indulgence was rooting for the local soccer team.

The bishops of Argentina elected him president of the Argentine episcopal conference in 2005 and reelected him in 2008. He also was active at the 2007 Latin American bishops’ conference in Aparecida, Brazil, and helped write its final statement, a widely praised document that affirmed the Church’s permanent commitment to evangelization.

Pope Francis at a Glance
◗ Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio on Dec. 17, 1936

During these years, too, he was in frequent conflict with two presidents of Argentina — Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina, who succeeded him after his death and continued his policy of leftist populism.

By contrast, says university professor Thomas R. Rourke in his scholarly study “The Roots of Pope Francis’s Social and Political Thought,” the cardinal “pleaded for unity and national integration and wished to discuss the problems of poverty, exclusion and even corruption.”

Relations between Cardinal Bergoglio and the regime grew especially strained over the issue of same-sex marriage, whose legalization he opposed and the government pushed. “At stake are the lives of many children who will be … deprived of their human development given by a father and mother and willed by God,” he said.

Pope of change

As pope, Francis quickly drew attention for living a simpler lifestyle than previous pontiffs. Forgoing the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace, he chose to live instead in St. Martha’s House, a comfortable but by no means luxurious residence and guesthouse for Vatican staff and visitors.

Soon, too, the new pope began the practice of reaching out to economically and socially disadvantaged and marginalized persons as a way of dramatizing his vision of a Church of the poor.

Francis also set out to reorganize the Roman curia, the Church’s central administrative machinery, aided by a group of cardinals — including Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston — whom he chose as his personal advisers.

To date, the reorganization has resulted in at least one major step — a radical reshaping of the Vatican’s communication-related entities to place more emphasis on new media. But in other areas, notably including finances, reorganization has been slowed by scandals, conflicts and apparent resistance from within.

Beyond the walls of the Vatican, Francis has emerged as an advocate of decentralization in Church decision-making, carried out in the name of what he calls “synodality.”

One expression of this new emphasis was a 2017 decree giving national conferences of bishops more authority in regard to liturgical translations. Similarly, he has increased the visibility of the world Synod of Bishops. And in naming new cardinals he has shown a marked tendency to bypass old, established sees in favor of dioceses where having a cardinal is a novelty.

According to Rourke, the central theme of his preaching and teaching is “inculturation of the Gospel” — meaning “the Gospel should be free to penetrate every dimension of life.” This leads him to be a strong opponent of “ideological colonization” — the standardization of thought and behavior through the process of socioeconomic globalization.

Choppy waters

Early in his pontificate, Francis famously used the image of a “field hospital” to describe the pastoral role of the Church in tending, as it were, to people’s material, psychological and spiritual wounds. This perspective appears to be at the root of his controversial stance on allowing Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled.

Amoris Laetitia, his 2016 exhortation on family, does not call for that explicitly. Instead it describes a process of discernment, to be carried on under the guidance of a priest, by which some Catholics in this situation might conclude they can take this step. Although the papal document’s wording on all this is less than clear and has given rise to considerable argument, Pope Francis has confirmed that this is what it means.

The result has been a clash comparable in some ways to that following Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae. But with one big difference: In 1968 Paul’s critics assailed him for adhering to Church teaching, whereas Pope Francis’s document is questioned for supposedly departing from it.

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The biggest scandal of Francis’ pontificate has been the Church’s response to clergy sexual abuse. Despite putting new directives in place for removing bishops who fail to protect young people — and removing at least three U.S. prelates for this reason — the scandal came roaring back in 2018 following the pope’s visit to Chile in January and the fall of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick in the summer. The Vatican’s global response, of a summit of the presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences, is set for February.

Russell Shaw is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.