‘Who am I to judge?’ When Pope Francis spoke these words two years ago, in reference to the question of a gay priest who “seeks the Lord”, much of the global media heralded the onset of a brave new Catholic Church finally ready to move into the 21st century.
While there is a massive gap between the wish fulfilment projected onto the Church’s latest pontiff and the reality of who Francis is and what he aims to do, there can be no denying that Francis’s leadership has shaken the Church.
Francis, previously Jorge Bergoglio, a Cardinal and the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina, has shown a marked difference in papal style, right from his election on the 13 March 2013.
That evening, when he appeared to the crowds at St Peter’s Square, he greeted the audience by simply saying, “Good evening”, and he then asked the crowds to pray for him, the Bishop of Rome. He would later that evening take the bus back to his hotel, where he paid the bill himself.
Francis would continue to win plaudits for his personal style of simplicity by shunning the official papal apartments of the Apostolic Palace for the Vatican guest house. He also does not travel in the so-called ‘Pope-mobile’ but has, instead, popularised the Fiat in his motorised commutes.
Taking the bus
These were not gimmicks simply designed to win public approval—it seems as though Francis has always lived like this. In Buenos Aires he was known for taking the bus, for living in a flat instead of the official bishop’s residence, and for spending significant time in the parishes situated in the slums of the city.
This theme would continue when Francis would include women and Muslim prisoners in the Holy Thursday ritual foot-washing, which commemorates the same act of Jesus at the Last Supper before his crucifixion on Good Friday, telling them that with this act he was putting himself at their service.
Needless to say, these symbolic gestures have made the Pope something of a global rock star. But as the Pope himself is quick to point out, ”Jesus also, for a certain time, was very popular, and look at how that turned out.”
For now, the Pope remains one of the world’s foremost leaders, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. (Although many Catholic commentators note that the secular press may begin to feel differently about the Pope when they realise he holds to same doctrines concerning sexuality as all his predecessors have).
Cheered by massive crowds
He recently completed a full-scale trip to Cuba and the United States (after having helped normalise relations between the two countries), where he was cheered by massive crowds and fêted by politicians of widely varying political persuasions.
In the US, he became the first pope to address Congress, elaborating on his signature themes of proclaiming all human life as sacred, and in asserting the urgent need for a more just global economy, as well as a higher regard for the environment.
He also celebrated a mass at Madison Square Garden for thousands of people, saying memorably in his homily:
“In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath the rapid pace of change, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no ‘right’ to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, and the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity.”
Going to the edges, or as he sometimes puts it, “the peripheries”, may have been the impulse that led the cardinals to choose the first pope from the Americas.
In a now famous speech before the conclave, then Cardinal Bergoglio noted that a “self-referential Church” is sick.
“The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.”
It is surmised that the cardinals would turn to Bergoglio because he offered a path away from the Vatican intrigue, towards the mission of the Church’s founder.
Perhaps the essence of Francis’s leadership is reflected in the name he chose to assume when elevated to the papacy—Francis. The name has never been used before by a pope, and it is in homage to the great St Francis of Assisi, who left a life of wealth to live a life of poverty, service and evangelism. As Pope Francis says of the saint himself, “He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time. He changed history”.
Both the novelty and the history of the name of Francis suggests the raison d’être of Francis’s papacy. Francis has come to the chair of St Peter (the first Bishop of Rome) at a time of crisis. Pope Benedict XVI had taken the decision to abdicate in the face of failing health, but also, presumably, because he believed the role needed to be played by someone with the strength to reform the Vatican.
Francis the saint had, according to Catholic tradition, a vision in which a voice spoke to him saying “Rebuild my Church”. Francis the Pope, it would seem, may have a similar task ahead of him.
The Catholic Church currently faces declining numbers in the western world, a dearth of priests, and the continuing fall-out from the shocking scandals of clerical child abuse and financial mismanagement at the Vatican.
Francis has begun to deal with the scandals.He has established a commission that includes lay people, abuse survivors, and clergy to recommend guidelines on how to deal with abuse; he has also accepted the resignations of three American bishops who were found to have mishandled abuse allegations. The commission has since been pivotal in the establishment of a Vatican tribunal that will judge bishops who do not deal with allegations adequately.
Heralds of hope
On his recent trip to the US, he met with abuse survivors, saying after: “The crimes and sins of the sexual abuse of children must no longer be held in secret. I pledge the zealous vigilance of the church to protect children and the promise of accountability for all.
“You survivors of abuse have yourselves become true heralds of hope and ministers of mercy. We humbly owe each one of you and your families our gratitude for your immense courage to shine the light of Christ on the evil of the sexual abuse of children.”
While the blackness of such a scandal will continue to taint the Church for time to come, it is clear that Francis is moving to make the Church far more swift in dealing with the sins of its priests—albeit far too slowly for many critics. Experts have also noted that there is only so much he can do in a global organisation to which, contrary to popular belief, he cannot dictate.
Many believed that it was the apparent corruption within the Vatican Bank (or, to use its formal name, the Institute for the Works of Religion), that may have forced Benedict’s hand in his resignation. It is no wonder then that Francis has moved quickly to continue Benedict’s attempts to bring the Bank into compliance with normal banking and accounting practices.
Francis stepped up his predecessor’s efforts in involving lay expertise by appointing six well-regarded Catholic businesspeople to make recommendations regarding the Vatican’s finances. This then led to a new Secretariat for the Economy, a fifteen member advisory council (including lay members with voting rights) which advises the Pope on financial policy.
For the first time, all Vatican departments have to submit budgets and quarterly reports. Reportedly, the Bank is lucky to still exist (Pope Francis quipped at one mass, “St Peter didn’t have a bank account”) but as the Bank continues to transfer money to the impoverished and the war-torn (particularly Syria), Francis was convinced to reform it instead of liquidating it.
The long term vision now is to transform the Bank into a kind of socially responsible, eco-capitalist investment hub. To be sure, much work remains for such a plan to come to fruition but for the first time in decades, the Bank is no longer perceived as an easy front for money laundering.
But beyond these important administrative reforms, there is the question of what the Pope’s leadership will mean for the Church as a spiritual organisation.
Will the so-called “Francis effect” change the Church for the better, in a sustainable fashion? Leadership magazine interviewed two well-placed experts to ascertain the answer to such a question.
Günther Simmermacher, editor-in-chief of South Africa’s weekly Catholic newspaper, The Southern Cross, suggests that while Francis has in a sense “opened” the Church to the world, there “is no evidence that the new tone of the Church under Pope Francis is getting masses of people back into the Church.
“I think most Catholics welcome the idea of making God available to those who might have felt excluded.”
He does note, however, that there are “some Catholics who would prefer a purer Church”.
South Africa’s most senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Wilfred Napier, the Archbishop of Durban, believes Francis’s popularity is owing to his willingness to speak the truth.
“Pope Francis is also not afraid to tell the truth, but what makes him special is that he begins by living it in his own life, and in a way that all can see. When he says ‘The Church must care for the poor and marginalised,’ he begins by visiting and ministering to them by his presence and moral support! But no one must ever forget that he is a Jesuit through and through; so there is a depth and seriousness in him and in what he says that people can easily overlook or miss!
“For instance, if the shepherd is going to smell like his sheep, he has to live in such close proximity with them then that his way of life and spirituality flows into theirs, and theirs into his.”
As a cardinal, and one who was in the conclave that elected Francis, Napier has some unique insight into the so-called “Francis effect”.
Bringing Christ into the picture
“The ‘Francis effect’ is a very catchy expression, and it seems to define the Catholic Church under the leadership of Francis, whereas his sole aim and purpose is to bring Christ and the Church into the picture. A second danger is that the ‘Francis effect’ might distract attention from the fact that he is very much a team player. Most of his reforms reflect what the cardinals had said in their meetings before the conclave. Also most of the reforms are taking effect because of the teams of people that were engaged in carrying out those recommendations.”
Napier is quite firm, and almost startlingly frank, when he asserts that the press’s unfavourable comparison of Francis with Benedict XVI is based on media bias. Napier points out that Benedict’s reign was far from the Inquisition type figure many had painted him as during his work as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which defends the Church from heresy.
“The media is most unforgiving. Once they’ve branded someone as a conservative they work to perpetuate that image. I’ll always remember a conversation after Benedict’s election. It went like this.
‘“How am I going to explain to the people back home that we elected Ratzinger as Pope?
‘“It all depends which Ratzinger comes out of the conclave. If it is the Ratzinger of Tubingen and Munich [where Ratzinger had been Archbishop previously], then we are okay! If it’s the Ratzinger of the Holy Office then we are sunk. For me it was Ratzinger the pastor, the spiritual leader and inspirer, the teacher about Jesus, his life, ministry and place in our life as his disciples, who came out of the conclave. But that didn’t change the media’s view of him. They still lie by saying he did nothing to resolve paedophile crisis.”
Simmermacher agrees that the perception that Francis came out of the blue, so to speak, is not quite grounded in reality.
“It’s important to remember that both are doctrinally conservative men. The narrative that Francis is a liberal who is out to change doctrine – the hope of the secular society and fear of conservatives -- is simply untrue. The key difference between the two is not dogmatic, but resides in the pastoral application of doctrine.
“Pope Francis, since his papal election, has become an extrovert who gives priority to concepts such as love and mercy—of God in and among people. He came in as a virtual unknown—a blank canvas, so to speak—and so the secular media have projected their own interpretations, mostly positive, on him. They did the same with Benedict, but because of his history, these tended to be more negative...
“Pope Francis’ famous quote, ‘Who am I to judge’, although it referred to a very specific circumstance, is in many ways defining his papacy. And where many people previously felt they were being judged by popes, Church and God, the message they pick up from Pope Francis is that they are now not being judged. Instead of papal reproach they feel papal love. And that sea-change in perception finds expression in media reporting.”
Simmermacher believes that when the media hear Francis speak things his predecessor said, they believe they are hearing it for the first time—partly because of the media’s inadequate knowledge of religion, and partly because Francis “speaks the language of the people”.
Miserando atque eligendo
Simmermacher notes that the “key theme” of Francis’s pontificate is mercy. Indeed, Francis’s episcopal motto is “miserando atque eligendo”, which is roughly translated into English as “choosing with mercy”. This seems to be the motif of his pontificate.
All of the grand actions of the Pope—from the reforms, to the travel, to the kissing of the grossly disfigured—are rooted in his faith in God’s mercy.
It is said that when Jesus restored St Peter to his ministry after his denial of his Lord, Jesus asked him to take care of his “sheep”. Pope Francis himself has said the shepherd must have the smell of his sheep on him; he must be among his people. In this way, the Church becomes “a field hospital for the wounded”.
In a world of violence, in a global economy often brutal in its pursuit of profit, brutal towards workers, families and the environment, the Pope’s message of mercy becomes magnetic, even prophetic. It is, however, a highly modern phenomenon of the Pope as celebrity—with Pope John Paul II, the former actor, being the foremost practitioner of the art. This phenomenon has reached its apogee in Francis.
The question that remains is whether Francis, and the wider Church, can translate that capital, the “Francis effect”, into lasting, substantial reform.