What is it about Francis?

Regular contributor Michael O’Connor reflects on the style and substance of Pope Francis.

What is it about Francis?

His intro to the world was simple. “Good evening.” A genial looking older man in simple white clerical cassock wishing for those gathered in St Peter’s Square that their evening be a good one; a man who has come to be seen as a simple good man in what he does, what he says, and how he says it.


He thanked the people of Rome for their welcome. He asked them to pray with him for Pope Benedict. Then, proceeding towards the traditional blessing a new Pope bestows, he asked first for their blessing.


The people gathered below and the whole world watching knew this was a different style of pope.


We have witnessed this new style opening out since that moment.


Firstly, his gestures of love. It is impossible to see any sign of contrivance in his washing of the feet of delinquents, his hugs for the little and the repulsive, his warm embracing smile for…well…everyone! (a smile not felt perhaps by those exploiting the poor).


There’s his style of simplicity and poverty: non-palatial accommodation in the company of regular people; his spontaneous homilies of graceful simplicity at morning ‘home Masses’; his arrival at functions of state in his Ford Focus. These are the things that have attracted the interest and approval of just about everyone. This is more like his inspiration from Assisi, or – most profoundly of all – his inspiration from Galilee.


Then there are his words. They sound different from traditional papal utterance. Not a difference of content if analysed closely. But certainly a difference of tone and emphasis which is immediately striking when they reach the ear. And they go to the heart so readily, unlike many utterances which get there only after lengthy incubation in the mind.


There is in his utterance – for me at least – that simple, mesmerising wisdom of Jesus’ words which challenge and enthral the heart prior to, during, and long after countless applications of the grey matter.


I think of such gems as pastors in the Church being “shepherds who have the smell of their sheep”; the Church as a “field hospital” for the injured in need of Christ; his thousand times preference for “an injured Church rather than a sick Church” which suffocates on introspection. It seems almost daily that he adds to this store.


And all the time these are the doings and sayings of “a true son of the Church” who – while championing resolutely the rights of the poor – does not shy, for example, from denouncing abortion as “horrific”. Consistently he sees none poorer to champion than unborn human persons. Who is surprised that he welcomes mothers breast-feeding in the Sistine Chapel?


“Who am I to judge?” These are five powerful words from Pope Francis concerning homosexuals. They highlight a vital and profound aspect of Francis’ stamp on the Church. I believe he is loyally following Jesus who said, “Do not judge and you will not be judged” (Matt 7:1). I have no doubt that he will be consistent in not judging actual persons (their motivations, their moral capabilities, the state of their souls before God) while safeguarding and developing the traditions of the Church in moral issues. As teacher and shepherd he will, as he has done, make authoritative judgements and pronouncements on human moral behaviours – without judging or condemning any one person.


The October Synod on ‘Marriage and Family’ will no doubt display the pastoral rather than dogmatic orientation of Francis’ papacy. While upholding and safeguarding the sacred in marriage and family, Bishop Francis and his brother bishops will be seeking pastorally to bring the joy of the Good News to marriages and families in all circumstances. It will be an exciting time of Spiritual movement for the Church.


Francis is for me about substance and style. As a true son of the Church he is deeply grounded in, and a champion of, Catholic Christianity. He is wonderfully catholic in that he possesses a whole and wholesome vision of Christianity and life. His view of the whole is responsible for, I believe, his controversial statement, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods…it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”


“We cannot insist…all the time” is key. We cannot expect always to convince about parts of the whole until we have proclaimed and convinced concerning the joyful good news in its entirety. We cannot insist on acceptance of “hard bits” while neglecting to proclaim the joyful whole which makes the hard bits palatable and, in fact, ultimately truly joyful.


Hence, I believe, Francis’ enthusiasm for the new evangelisation, the proclamation of the kingdom, the fulfilment of human beings, which propelled Christ.


This same Christ, this same fullness, grasped by all of us in less-than-full ways, was also the motivation of Francis’ predecessors. What has made this man “Person of the Year” and pope to garner widespread acceptance and following, is a special, timely charism.


Francis is blessed with the charism to appeal readily through humble, Christ-like, godly humanness to the simple humanness that we all share through God’s grace.


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