A popular opinion in this newspaper and others is that Pope Francis is the latest in a trifecta of apostle popes: Blessed John Paul was the apostle of hope. Pope Benedict the apostle of faith. And Francis the apostle of charity.
Such simplifications overlook the complexity and nuance of each papacy, but it is clear that Francis both sees himself in continuity with his predecessors and with a specific, prophetic message that he is communicating to us with some urgency.
After the publication of the lengthy interview with Pope Francis in Jesuit journals in mid-September, the Church barely had time to catch its breath before the pope was at it again — this time in the form of a sit-down with the founder of Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, atheist Eugenio Scalfari.
Published Oct. 1, the interview is quite different from the Jesuit interview, yet just as compelling in its substance. The pope speaks of the “leprosy” of the papal court and the importance of priests, pastors and bishops being “at the service of the people of God.” “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old,” he said, who “need care and companionship.”
In a world of instant communication, Pope Francis is utilizing the media to skip documents and formal texts and speak directly to all people, believers and unbelievers. He’s transparent, he’s convicted, and he’s not backing down. It’s undeniable that he’s challenging all of us in a way that is unsettling and that is making us re-examine how we are living our lives and sharing our faith.
|Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 2. CNS photo/Paul Haring
Following the interview in America magazine, a nervous buzz began among some Catholics. While they generally acknowledge that the pope is not changing any doctrine, some question the prudence of his communications. Yet his intention is clear and he remains resolute. As interview follows homily follows speech, Pope Francis is demonstrating to the world that he is fearless — propelled forward by a consuming faith and a determined conviction to renew the spirit of the Church. While many ministries in the Church are doing great work, it’s undeniable that people of no faith or weakly formed faith are on the rise. Pope Francis is also concerned that the Church has been so consumed by internal issues and battles that we need to be called back to what discipleship means. His message is one of mercy, of humility and of witness.
Pope Francis is intensely pastoral, but he also is prophetic. He’s calling us to a priesthood of the faithful, and he’s not standing in the wings waiting for us to make up our minds. He continues his full-court press of engagement with those he believes we need to be reaching the most. He’s in our face to do the same.
This is only the start of Pope Francis’ pontificate. To Scalfari, he tells the story of what he felt immediately before accepting the task his fellow cardinals had laid on him. It is important to recall that he was a surprising candidate chosen at a moment of great prayer and crisis.
Divine Providence has surprised us from that first moment when Francis bowed before us on that balcony. He is someone from a far land calling us to discipleship and renewal for the sake of the world.
Don’t be surprised that this man of faith, hope and charity will be sticking to his guns, whatever the criticism. He’s not only calling Catholics to “make a mess,” he’s making one himself. And maybe right now, challenging as that can be, it’s exactly what we need.