The Language of Pope Francis

No one can deny the fact that Pope Francis has introduced into the Church a new vocabulary for pastoral ministry. Catchwords such as mercy, dialogue, devil, encounter, accompaniment, discernment, field hospital and periphery have echoed throughout the whole Church over the past four years and have become signature expressions of Francis’ Petrine ministry. We must also understand what Pope Francis means when he speaks about evangelization.

Allow me to begin by returning to the meetings of the College of Cardinals in the days that preceded the papal conclave and election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the See of Peter in March 2013. Those were decisive meetings that outlined the plan of action for whomever would be elected pope. In one of the “interventions” to the assembled cardinals, the then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires gave a brief yet riveting talk on “The Sweet and Comforting Joy of Evangelizing.” Cardinal Bergoglio described evangelization in four points:

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1. To evangelize implies apostolic zeal. To evangelize implies 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 in the geographic sense but also the existential peripheries: those of the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance, of doing without religion, of thought and of all misery.

2. When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referent and then she gets sick. The evils that over the course of time happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in a self-reference and a sort of theological narcissism.

In Revelation, Jesus says that he is at the door and knocks. Evidently the text refers to his knocking from outside in order to enter, but I think of the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out. The self-referent Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him come out.     

3. When the Church is self-referent without realizing it, she believes she has her own light. She ceases to be the mysterium lunae and gives way to that very great evil that is spiritual worldliness. The self-referent Church lives to give glory only to one another.

In simple terms, there are two images of the Church: the evangelizing Church that comes out of herself — the Church hears the Word of God with reverence and proclaims it with faith (opening words of Dei Verbum), and the worldly Church that lives within herself, of herself, for herself. This must give light to the possible changes and reforms that must be made for the salvation of souls. 

4. Thinking of the next pope, he must be a man that, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to come out to the existential peripheries, that helps her to be the fruitful mother who lives from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.   

Many are calling Pope Francis the great revolutionary. The only time he uses the word “revolution” is in Evangelii Gaudium when he speaks about the “revolution of tenderness” of the Son of God who took on our flesh.

I also think there is another revolution that Francis is offering us: the revolution of normalcy. What Francis is modeling for us is normal Christian, pastoral behavior. He is also offering to us a new, pastoral lexicon that is at the same time quite simple and yet profound and confounding. Whenever we are confronted by such normal, simple, Gospel-rooted behavior and direct language, it throws some of us for a loop, because it’s more of a reflection on our own abnormal behavior, human cravings and linguistic poverty rather than on the path of Gospel living that leads to holiness here below and in the life to come.

Pope Francis remains for the Church and the world a challenge, a consolation and a form of tenderness that we’ve desired for a long time. May we learn from his life and his words, ideas, hopes and dreams for the Church.

In Focus
Throughout his four-year pontificate, Pope Francis has used a distinct language in order to promote the mercy and compassion needed to serve the Church and the faithful. CNS photo/Paul Haring


Throughout his Petrine ministry, Pope Francis has stressed the pre-eminence of dialogue. He has said that dialogue does not mean giving up our identity as a Christian. On the contrary, he stressed, “True openness means remaining firm in one’s deepest convictions, and therefore being open to understanding others.”

OSV file photo/Jim Olvera

During his 2015 visit to the United States, Pope Francis used the word “dialogue” 23 times in five of his addresses. In his historic address to Congress on Sept. 24, 2015, he made clear his desire to enter into a dialogue “with all of you,” referring to the American people. Pope Francis continued his theme of dialogue in his very moving address to the bishops of the United States, gathered in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2015:

“The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with laypersons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia (boldness), the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that ‘exodus’ which is necessary for all authentic dialogue. Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain. Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”

Pope Francis believes that this path of dialogue is a path to conversion for a Church that too often operates under the logic of a world that it supposedly rejects. For it is only through dialogue that the Church truly can be a sign of contradiction, especially in a world — and at times elements in the Church — that prefers monologue.

The Church as a Field Hospital

OSV file photo/Jim Olvera

Several months after his election to the See of Peter, Pope Francis was asked what kind of Church he dreams of. In his interview with Jesuit publications in September 2013, he compared the Church to a field hospital. The expression “field hospital” is found in the Spiritual Exercises of the founder of the Society of Jesus, Pope Francis’ religious family. Field hospitals are tents set up in the midst of battle. The wounded who arrive at these emergency health stations don’t come for analyses of cholesterol levels or other such lab tests. That is done at a later stage. Field-hospital workers are trained in triage; they recognize very quickly the wounds, stop the bleeding and initiate the process of healing. Field hospitals refer patients to specialists. It is a very apt image for the Church, especially for those of you working on the front lines in parishes, chaplaincies, etc. The “field hospital” is the opposite image of a fortress under siege. The Church, acting as a field hospital, continues to accompany all who suffer from the illness of sin and to mercifully dispense the medicine of God’s healing grace in the sacraments throughout our lives.

What does life in the field hospital require of us? That we know, first of all, the many battles that are being waged: those public battles and those less evident. We have to know about doing triage work and assess wounds and brokenness that at times are not evident to our eyes: the psychological wounds, the wounds of alienation, the wounds of sadness, the wounds of grief. Francis invites us to be warm, welcoming and forgiving, as Jesus has modeled to us on every page of the New Testament.

The Devil

Pope Francis’ tweets and homilies about Satan, the Accuser, the Evil One, the Father of Lies, the Ancient Serpent, the Tempter, the Seducer, the Great Dragon, the Enemy are now legion! The devil is not a myth but a real being and the most insidious enemy of the Church. Francis has issued calls to arms in his homilies. “The devil also exists in the 21st century, and we need to learn from the Gospel how to battle against him,” the pope warned, adding that Christians should not be “naive” about the evil one’s ways. The devil is anything but a relic of the past, the pontiff said. Acknowledging the devil’s shrewdness, he once preached: “The devil is intelligent; he knows more theology than all the theologians together.”

In a powerful, unscripted address to 600,000 young people at a rally in Paraguay in July 2015, the pope presented the job description of the devil: “Friends: the devil is a con artist. He makes promise after promise, but he never delivers. He’ll never really do anything he says. He doesn’t make good on his promises. He makes you want things which he can’t give, whether you get them or not. He makes you put your hopes in things which will never make you happy.”

For Francis, the spirit of evil does not want our holiness; he does not want our Christian witness; he does not want us to be disciples of Christ. We must react to the devil as did Jesus, who replied with the word of God. With the prince of this world, one cannot dialogue. We must respond with the word of God that defends us.

The Art of Accompaniment


In his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis added several phrases to the ever-expanding lexicon and vision of the New Evangelization. One of his favorite phrases is “the art of accompaniment.” For Pope Francis, “Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelization” (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 173).

“Spiritual accompaniment must lead others closer to God…. [T]o accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father” (No. 170). Pope Francis calls pastors to do more than teach the Church’s doctrine — though they clearly must do that. They must “take on the ‘smell of the sheep’” whom they serve so that “the sheep are willing to hear their voice” (No. 24). This requires a more careful and intensive formation of all who minister to families — lay ministers, catechists, seminarians, priests and families themselves (see Amoris Laetitia, Nos. 200-204).


In keeping with his own Jesuit formation, Pope Francis is a man of discernment, and, at times, that discernment results in freeing him from the confinement of doing something in a certain way because it was ever thus. In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis writes: “Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way.’ I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities. A proposal of goals without an adequate communal search for the means of achieving them will inevitably prove illusory” (No. 33).


Recently, Pope Francis addressed proper priestly formation for discernment when he met with members of the Jesuit order in Kraków, Poland, during World Youth Day last summer. “Some priestly formation programs run the risk of educating in the light of overly clear and distinct ideas, and therefore to act within limits and criteria that are rigidly defined a priori, and that set aside concrete situations,” he said.

In Amoris Laetitia, the pope mentions discernment 35 times. Particularly when dealing with individual Catholics who have been divorced and civilly remarried, Pope Francis wrote that discernment recognizes that, “since the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (No. 300).

A very important paragraph of Amoris Laetitia speaks to the Church’s great respect for the consciences of the faithful as well as the necessity of formation of consciences:

“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. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (No. 37).

The Church does not exist to take over one’s conscience but to stand in humility before faithful men and women who have discerned prayerfully and often painfully before God the reality of their lives and situations. Discernment and the formation of conscience can never be separated from the Gospel demands of truth and the search for charity and truth, and the tradition of the Church.



Pope Francis bases his “peripheral” principles in the life of Jesus of Nazareth who was born on the periphery of his time — in Palestine and not in Rome, the seat of the empire. Jesus lived in the periphery for 30 years, and during his ministry he never lost sight of society’s existential peripheries — the poor, the lost sheep, the abandoned, the discarded, the prostitutes, the demonically possessed and women who were clearly on the fringes of society. For Francis, too, the Church is called to go to the ends of the earth, to the peripheries of our times, geographical and existential, that are in need of the light of the Gospel.

Pope Francis himself comes from the periphery. He was born and raised in Argentina, which is both a geographical and existential periphery. Francis is the first Latin American, non-European pontiff in modern times to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. Over the past four years he has warned the Church to not become so fixated on the center that it neglects the periphery — those people who live on the edge of mainstream society, whether within the economically advanced nations or globally.

The Culture of Encounter


In a homily given on his first Pentecost as bishop of Rome in 2013, Pope Francis suggested that the word “encounter” is key to the way he thinks of Christian relationships. Pope Francis has frequently spoken of a “culture of encounter” as a goal for human society. Societies that embrace the culture of encounter foster right relationships among humans and involve a spirituality that emphasizes a personal friendship with God, who first encounters us in love. In order to mine the depths of meaning of this expression, we must consider the pope’s native tongue: Spanish. The word “encuentro” is often used in spiritual terms. Most translations of the pope’s use of “encuentro” are rendered in English as “encounter.” The term “encuentro” in Spanish is loaded with more meaning than a literal translation than English rendering is able to convey. An encounter between God and one’s self begins first and foremost by acknowledging that we are being encountered by our Creator who loves us infinitely — an encounter requires a dynamic back and forth between two parties.

The poor hold a privileged place in the culture of encounter. The poor are of particular importance because they are the most ignored and seen as the most dispensable. Yet in God’s eyes they are equal in dignity and importance to the rich and powerful person. To encounter the poor person is quite literally to encounter Christ.

The culture of encounter proclaims the equal dignity imbued in each and every person who is the image and likeness of God. To see the world through the lens of encounter is to realize the presence of God all around us and that we are connected to each other through ties both visible and invisible.



Pope Francis’ episcopal motto, “Miserando atque eligendo,” is a rich expression taken from St. Bede’s homily on the call of Matthew the Evangelist: “Having had mercy, the Lord called him.” The motto was not chosen for the papal office but one that already accompanied Jorge Mario Bergoglio from the beginning of his episcopal ministry in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and now as bishop of Rome. Pope Francis stated in his first Angelus address in 2013 that “a little mercy makes the world a little less cold and more just. We need to understand properly this mercy of God, our Father who is so patient with us.” Throughout his priestly ministry, Jorge Mario Bergoglio sought to give concrete expression to God’s mercy. He has said repeatedly, “Mercy is not just a pastoral attitude, it’s the very substance of the Gospel message.” Mercy is not just the pastoral attitude, it’s not a project. It’s not another thing on the agenda; it’s the substance of the Gospel.

How can the Church put this mercy into practice in the midst of so many challenges and crises assailing us each day? If we proclaim to be followers of Christ and to be his ministers, priests and shepherds, we have to go where Jesus went. We have to take upon ourselves, like the good Samaritan, the man we encounter along the road, the one we encounter in seeking the lost sheep. To be like Jesus we have to be close to people. Francis invites us to eat with tax collectors and with sinners. He wants us to forgive the woman caught in adultery, while admonishing her at the same time to sin no more. He wants us to welcome and respect foreigners and refugees, even those who are enemies or potential threats. And above all, the plea has been consistent: Stop judging.

Father Thomas Rosica, CSB, is the founder and CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation. He served the Vatican Press Office from 2013 to 2016 as an assistant to the director of the Holy See Press Office.