First Jesuit, Latin American pontiff - and the man behind the "Francis Effect"
Since the very night of his election, Pope Francis has captured the imagination and the hearts of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Faithful to his namesake St. Francis of Assisi, the pontiff has made his life a witness to God’s loving mercy and has promoted the reform and renewal in the Church that began under Pope Benedict XVI. His simple gestures of compassion and love — such as embracing the disfigured, the forgotten and the defenseless — have touched people all over the globe and sparked what has been called the “Francis Effect.” Inactive Catholics are returning to the Church after decades of being away, and a secular culture that has long heard unrelentingly negative stories about Catholics because of the sex abuse scandal is learning instead of love and mercy — the healing power of Christ in a world that has lost an authentic understanding of what love and mercy actually mean. The image he uses for the Church is of a field hospital healing the broken, the wounded and the spiritually bleeding by nurturing that decisive encounter with Christ Jesus. It is a practical and very real living out of the New Evangelization.
Pope Francis is a pontiff of many firsts: the first Latin American pope, the first Jesuit pope, the first pope from the Western Hemisphere and the first non-European pope in 1,300 years. He is also the first pope to understand the social media age: the age of Twitter, selfies and Instagram.
The effect of his outreach has been remarkable. According to a poll at the start of December, the pontiff had the approval of 92 percent of American Catholics and 62 percent of all Americans, and the Church is now viewed favorably by 62 percent of all Americans, the highest favorability in a decade.
Pope Francis is a Catholic of the Year, but he has achieved this extraordinary level of enthusiasm and support not through some carefully orchestrated media campaign but by standing faithfully in continuity with his predecessors and by calling on Catholics and all people of goodwill “to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
First pope to resign from the office since Pope Gregory Xll in 1415
Elected to succeed Blessed John Paul II in April 2005, Pope Benedict XVI began his pontificate as one of the foremost theologians of the 20th century and the most experienced cardinal in the Church. As pope, he not only proved comfortable following one of the greatest pontiffs in Church history but led the Church out of the shadowlands of the sex abuse crisis and provided a powerful theological foundation for the grand project of the New Evangelization — reigniting the fires of faith in once solidly Christian territories — and resisting what he called the “dictatorship of relativism.”
In 2013, Pope Benedict gave one last service to the Church. Discerning that he lacked the energy to carry ahead with needed reforms and the New Evangelization, he announced on Feb. 11 that he would renounce the papacy at the end of that month. His decision was an act of prudence and humility, one of the most remarkable in the history of the popes, and his departure was a model of serene trust in the Holy Spirit.
As he left the Vatican, he pledged his allegiance to the new pope and then removed himself from the world scene by journeying to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo and settling into the Mater Ecclesiae convent hidden away in the gardens of the Vatican City State.
With his renunciation of the papal throne, Pope Benedict set the stage for the election of Pope Francis, and from the time of his successor’s arrival, he has continued to exercise prudence and humility. As pope emeritus, he has remained out of the limelight, but he has also been obedient to the requests of Pope Francis for public appearances. Even as new generations in the Church come to appreciate his labors as a theologian and as pope, he remains in retirement a model for all Catholics in how to be a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.
Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent and the author of “Pope Francis” (OSV, $16.95).