Although ten years have passed, I can easily recall that evening when we Servites were gathered in front of the television, waiting for a new pope to step onto the Vatican balcony. The white smoke had already poured out of the Vatican chimney, indicating that the College of Cardinals had completed their deliberations and had selected a successor to Pope Benedict. After what seemed like a long time, an old man came out and stood there stiff as a board. First impressions were not very indicative of what was to follow, for the papacy began to change almost immediately. The new pope was not wearing the customary red stole, and, instead of blessing the crowd, he asked for their blessing and their prayers. We soon learned that the new pope’s given name was Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He was of Italian ancestry, and was born and raised in Argentina, the first pope from Latin America. He was also the first Pope to choose the name of Francis, a name that would come to symbolize his personal commitment to simplicity of life and the renewal and revitalization of the Catholic Church, which were hallmarks of the life of Francis of Assisi. We would learn that he was a very unassuming man. He insisted on paying his own hotel bill in Rome and then declined to move into the ornate Papal Penthouse, choosing simpler quarters instead. In his early years as Pope, when he was not hampered physically, he could be found walking the streets of Rome or riding the bus, chatting with people.
When asked in an early interview, “Who are you?” Francis said, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon with mercy.” I believe this sentence not only accounts for his unassuming nature, but also his way of applying church teaching. He starts with the premise that all of us are sinners. Prior to Pope Francis, the Catholic Church was often viewed as “an old scold,” throwing rocks at the modern world and lecturing people who are not in conformity with church teaching. Without actually changing moral teaching in any significant way, Francis has put the focus on welcoming people and then encouraging them to discover the riches of our faith. Having practical pastoral experience in a rapidly changing South American culture, Pope Francis knows firsthand that we must meet people where they are and learn to listen as well as to teach. We have all sinned in one way or another. He calls the church “a field hospital for sinners.” Pope Francis has also spoken about the need to reformulate the teachings of the church so that their actual meaning is communicated more accurately to people today. He has sharply restricted the celebration of the Tridentine Latin Mass, which had been experiencing something of a revival fifty years after it had been replaced by a New Order of the Mass. All of this has upset those who look to the Catholic Church for clear definitions of right and wrong and equate timeless teaching with timeless words. This issue has at times been compounded by the Pope’s tendency to talk “off the cuff” when members of the press are present; and more than once the Vatican has had to offer a clarification or “walk back” something the Pope has said. So, while closing some doors, the Pope has certainly opened many others.
As part of this effort at renewal, Pope Francis had tried to make the church more inclusive and more outward looking. He has included lay men and women in more positions of significance and has tried to reform the Roman Curia, the administrative arm of the church. He has appointed Cardinals from parts of the world that never before had Cardinals, while leaving some dioceses that have always had a Cardinal Archbishop without one. His talk about synodality, having all the people of God listen together for the voice of the Holy Spirit, is an effort to bridge the gap between the church professionals and the laity. He has continued the heavy travel schedule of his two predecessors; but, in line with his special concern for people at the periphery, he has focused his travel on places where there is conflict and places where the Christian community is often overlooked or forgotten. And, perhaps more than anything else, he has been the leading international voice on the environment, making care for creation a moral imperative. At the end of ten years, he has in certain ways disappointed both progressives and conservatives; but he has certainly changed the public face of the Catholic Church by the force of his personality. A recent news story summed up Pope Francis at 86: “Slower steps. Same Determination.” He now uses either a cane or a wheelchair because of a persistent knee ailment. Cardinal Kevin Farrell, a Vatican official sees the Pope today as an example for elderly people facing mobility issues. “He accepts his limitations with a great spirit and a great heart.” And, as Pope Francis himself has said, “You don’t run the church with a knee but with a head.”