Pope Francis brings a year of shock and awe

Pope Francis will complete his first year as head of the Church on March 13, and the last 12 months have revealed a deeply pastoral pope who is proclaiming God’s loving mercy revealed in Jesus Christ, who is challenging the faithful to become “spirit-filled evangelizers” in the world, and who is a humble and joy-filled reformer faithful to his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.

A surprising pope

The arrival of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica on the evening of March 13, 2013, remains one of the most unanticipated events in the modern life of the Church. His shocking election was not an accident of history, nor was it simply a case of the last man standing. He had received many votes in the 2005 conclave, and his reputation among the cardinalate quietly had increased in the eight years of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate. His address to his fellow cardinals on the day before the conclave was a perfect manifesto of reform and spiritual renewal that resonated.

As Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told ABC’s “This Week” last December, “What we were after was a good pastor with a track record of solid administration but fatherly warm, tender care for the sheep, for his people. And, boy, we got that on steroids with Pope Francis.”

The newly elected Pope Francis proceeded to fulfill the mandate given to him by the college. But what was evident on the loggia of St. Peter’s was that this new pope was going to be very different.

A new style

Pope Francis spent his first year using traditional settings for teachings — general audiences, homilies and speeches — but he also embraced all new forms of media, from Twitter to the first papal “selfie,” to lead the Church firmly onto the digital continent. He showed masterful gifts for touching hearts and minds, across cultures, faiths and backgrounds, with practical — even blunt — language and poignant gestures. Taken together, he demonstrated a new form of papal communication.

In an interview with Vatican Radio in April last year, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, observed, “Do you remember how the pope was embracing a young handicapped boy, placing his cheek near to the cheek of the boy? No words, but that was the only way to communicate something to that boy ... Pope Francis is not only touching the intellectual aspect, but is touching the heart and the imagination.”

The impact of his first year on the wider world has been dramatic. As Cardinal Dolan said on “This Week,” “This pope has successfully, finally, shattered the caricature ... that the Church is kind of mean and dour and always saying ‘no,’ and always telling us what we can’t do, and always telling us why we should be excluded. He’s saying, ‘no, come on in, the Church is about warmth and tenderness.’”

Ironically, Pope Francis initially expressed reluctance to grant interviews with the world press. This changed dramatically with his 90-minute press conference on the flight back to Rome from Rio de Janeiro last July. The interview included the now famous line, “Who am I to judge?” that was supposedly in answer to a question about homosexuality (but was more a pastoral reply to a question regarding a priest with a troubled background) and sparked a media frenzy. Subsequent interviews, such as the one in Jesuit journals, and with the atheist editor Eugenio Scalfari of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, caused similar storms of controversy over his supposed comments about abortion, proselytizing and the Church’s relationship with atheists.

The secular press slipped into its customary habit of spinning the pope’s words as a call for homosexual marriage, married priests, a Catholic crusade against capitalism and an end to the Church’s condemnation of abortion and contraception. Pope Francis wants none of these things, but for all of the spin, the secular press was touched by the humble pontiff. Rolling Stone magazine gave him a lengthy, albeit egregious cover story; Esquire magazine named him the “Best Dressed Man of 2013”; and Time magazine honored him as Person of the Year. In explaining Time’s choice, editor Nancy Gibbs wrote, “The heart is a strong muscle; he’s proposing a rigorous exercise plan. And in a very short time, a vast, global, ecumenical audience has shown a hunger to follow him.”

For Pope Francis, this media outreach is not an end in itself but assists him in advancing the key themes of his first year as pope. He has sparked what is being called the “Francis Effect” — the return of Catholics to the Church and the implementation of the New Evangelization in the real world. Crucial to the “Francis Effect” are the themes of mercy, encounter and movement.

Walking the walk

When asked the first question in the Jesuit journals interview — “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” — the pope replied “I am a sinner.” Cognizant of his own sins, Pope Francis said when he took possession of the Basilica of St. John Lateran last April, “Jesus shows us this merciful patience of God so that we can regain confidence, hope — always!”

He returned repeatedly to this throughout the first year, proclaiming that we can trust always in God’s mercy and love.

Mercy, however, is found in having a deeply personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), his first apostolic exhortation on the New Evangelization released in November, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them.”

Through his gestures he gave enduring examples of mercy and encounter: embracing Vinicio Riva, the man with ulcerating disfigurements; wading into the crowds in Rio de Janeiro during World Youth Day in July; or inviting a child with Down syndrome to ride in the popemobile.

Pope Francis added repeatedly in his first year that a Church standing still will grow old. Mercy and encounter must be carried out into the world, to what he calls the outskirts.

Pope Francis insists every member of the Church — “nourished by the light and strength of the Holy Spirit” — has a role to play, and there is no room for negativity and pessimism. He laments in the apostolic exhortation, “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.”

Reform and renewal

From the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has stood in continuity with Pope Emeritus Benedict’s desires to bring reform and renewal, an undertaking that is for the entire Church, from individual Catholics to parishes and dioceses — even the papacy itself.

For Pope Francis, a particular focus is the reform of the Curia, the central government of the Church. In April, he created an advisory council of eight cardinals (including the American Sean O’Malley of Boston) that is expected to propose sweeping changes to the institutional structure of the Holy See. The pope also established several commissions to improve Vatican financial transparency and to continue Pope Benedict’s efforts to end clergy sexual abuse.

Calling on the Church’s leaders to be humble like St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis put an end to the practice of appointing monsignors, save for those priests over the age of 65. On Holy Thursday, he called on priests to be shepherds, covered with the “smell” of sheep. He told bishops to avoid careerism, to tend to their flocks and avoid being “airport bishops” endlessly traveling out of their dioceses. When he named 19 new cardinals in January, he wrote the new “princes of the Church” with the plea “to receive this appointment with a simple and humble heart ... far from any kind of expression of worldliness, from any celebration alien to the evangelical spirit of austerity, moderation and poverty.”

His words for the faithful are just as dramatic. He has called on Catholics not be a “Mr. and Mrs. Whiner,” “querulous and disillusioned pessimists” with faces like “a pickled pepper.” He is the first pope to warn against being “sourpusses” in a papal document.

As for Pope Francis himself, he has spent the year faithful to his namesake’s humble service and joy. He lives in the Casa Santa Marta, a hotel in the Vatican, eschewed the traditional papal summer vacation at Castel Gandolfo and invited homeless men to his 77th birthday dinner in December.

Of all the images of Francis during his first papal year, though, the most emblematic were the times of laughter and of joy. He seems to be having a great time as pope — not in a frivolous or self-serving sense, but in the way of the joy-filled Christian. As he said in a recent homily, the Christian style is joy — “the joy of Jesus, which always forgives and helps.”

Cardinal Dolan said it best. In his first year, Francis has become the “world’s parish priest.”

Matthew Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.

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