Pope Francis celebrates his tenth anniversary as successor to St. Peter, March 13, 2023. It is amazing how quickly these past ten years have gone by. From his humble request for the prayers of the people gathered in St. Peter’s Square upon his election to his many apostolic visits throughout the world, including to the United States in 2015, it does not seem an overstatement to say that Jorge Bergoglio – now known as Pope Francis – has transformed the papacy. His humble and inclusive style has prompted many non-Catholics to say, “we love your pope.”
It must also be said that Pope Francis’s ministry as Peter to the universal Catholic Church and his service to the world has not been always light and airy. Rather, Francis’s consequential and at times hard-hitting frankness about the need for greater reform in the Church and the pressing need for justice and mercy globally has been met with praise in some quarters and condemnation in others. Below, I put forth what I believe are the most consequential dimensions of his papacy, including the way that Francis’s ministry has shaped my own as a priest.
I can remember vividly watching the coverage of the conclave on the day Pope Francis was elected pope. I was praying a rosary and was notably nervous – it’s as if my body and soul knew that this was going to be a significant papal election – one that would shape the Catholic Church for years to come. In the early days of Pope Francis, some focused on the contrasts between Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI, some of which seemed accurately described and others overblown. But certainly, the world and many Catholics took note of the new pope’s style which seemed more humble, less adorned, and more accessible than many of his predecessors.
After his election as pope, reporters flocked to Buenos Aires where the pope had served as archbishop for approximately twenty years. They discovered that Francis’s humble ways and focus on the poor were not new or put on, but consistent with his pastoral approach for years. They also found – and his sister confirmed this – that upon being elected pope, Francis seemed to have been given new energy and possessed a new vigor that contrasted with the pictures of a tired archbishop waiting for retirement. Catholics do believe that the Holy Spirit can play a guiding role in the election of a pope and in gifting certain charisms for one’s new office. Others would argue that we ought be careful in embracing this view, as history can muster significant evidence of a lack of sufficient charisms or the presumption that the Holy Spirit may not have been at the helm in the election of particular popes. Whatever one’s views are in this regard, Francis seemed to be transformed as he exercised his new global office as pope.
In my opinion, the most significant contribution of Pope Francis to the Catholic Church and the world has been his untiring focus on the poor and those on the margins – calling the Church to go to the peripheries – geographical and existential. In the extraordinary interview that was published just months after his election, Pope Francis dreamed of a “poorer Church for the poor.” He said that the Church was called to be a “field hospital” for the wounded. Indeed, it was his 3 minute speech prior to the conclave which many attributed the ascendant momentum that resulted in the election of Bergoglio as pope. In that speech, Francis said that the Church had become self-referential and needed to go beyond itself to announce the saving love and mercy of God. Francis was not only speaking to the global Church but to all Catholics to avoid the temptation to self-reference and a closed-in mentality that does not open up to the Holy Spirit.
This momentum toward inclusion and mercy flowed over into Pope Francis’s first visit outside of the Vatican to the Italian port city of Lampedusa, where he delivered an impassioned homily in the style of the Hebrew Scripture prophets. He asked, with anguish, have we forgotten to weep for our brothers and sisters who have lost their lives trying to reach for a life consistent with their human dignity? He noted how many immigrants – beset by poverty – had lost their lives by drowning in the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life. This homily also included the evocative phrase a “globalization of indifference” in which Francis decried so much suffering, death, and attendant apathy. Rather, the Holy Father has called Catholics to embrace a “revolution of tenderness and mercy” and has called the Catholic Church to be a tender mother to all those she encounters. Pope Francis’s exhortation to Christians to embrace radical inclusion, consistent with the Gospels, has inspired some and has been vehemently opposed by others.
Speaking personally, my ministry as a pastor has been informed, inspired, and emboldened by the pastoral witness and teaching of Pope Francis. I frequently use many of Pope Francis’s phrases in my preaching and teaching because I find them evocative, consistent with the compelling message of Jesus, and pastorally applicable and relevant to the lives of those I serve. Pope Francis’s witness, style, and prophetic message are so needed today – so needed in a world that suffers from a privation of light, love, inclusion, and mercy. My hope is that all hearts would be more open to the message of Pope Francis – inside the Church and beyond – and that God would continue to bless Pope Francis in the years to come.
Lastly, I would offer a few distinct places where further growth is needed for Pope Francis and for the global Catholic Church. The Catholic Church must do more in response to the harm that some abusing clergy and enabling bishops have inflicted on victims-survivors who continue to suffer under the weight and trauma they have experienced. Deep wounds remain and much work needs to be done to bring greater justice and healing to those who suffered abuse as well as to the greater Catholic Church. Attendant to this work, there must be greater accountability for bishops and Church leaders. There have been some positive steps forward in this regard, but much work remains to build a more just and accountable Catholic Church. The love of Christ impels us to become instruments of greater justice and healing in the Church and beyond.
Consistent with these reforms, I heard time and time again in the recent listening sessions at the Basilica that there needs to be a more robust and inclusive role for women in the Catholic Church and in Church governance. Pope Francis has also acknowledged this – now we need to deliver – too much is at stake to fall short of a more vital role for women in the Church. And here at the Basilica of St. Mary, we would do well to heed the words of our wise pope – we need to move beyond the doors of our church and with hope and confidence in Christ, lean into the grace of God to go out – outside the doors of our church – to announce the saving love of God. The days of waiting for people to come to the Basilica are gone – the days for going out have arrived!
Ad multos annos Pope Francis. May God continue to bless you richly and the Catholic Church, which you serve with love, courage, and faith.