One of Pope Francis’ first acts was to go to the Church of St. Anne, the parish church for Vatican employees, and say Mass there. At the end of the Mass, he stood outside the vestibule, greeting the parishioners at the door. The pastor at my church here in DC grabbed me as I walked into church later that morning. “Did you see him?” he asked excitedly. “He could have been any parish priest, greeting the people as they leave Mass.” One of the most foundational changes in this pontificate is that Pope Francis is re-fashioning the job description: He is the world’s parish priest.
Ever since the papacy of Leo XIII, the universal Church has looked to popes to serve as principal teachers of the faith. Leo issued eighty-five encyclicals during his reign (1878-1903), some small, some large, and some, like Rerum Novarum, seminal. Pope John Paul II issued fourteen encyclicals, and theologians continue to engage them for the depth of their theological analysis. Pope Benedict XVI, arguably the most theologically gifted man to sit in the papal throne, issued only three encyclicals but they, too, were directed to a highly erudite audience. Even Benedict’s sermons had a density that made them somewhat inaccessible to the average Catholic. More importantly, in the last two pontificates, pastoral theology often seemed to be understood as a subset of moral theology (to the extent it was considered at all) and Pope Francis is placing pastoral theology back at the heart of the Church’s teaching office. That may be uncomfortable to those who like it when they have a pope who resolves all ambiguities, who insists that the gray in human life declare itself the one or the other and become white or black, and ends up making the Church itself gray and aged. In Pope Francis’ vision, the Church is ever new and, just so, not quite so predictable as heretofore.
Francis teaches, but he does it in a different way. Even his encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, did not break any new theological ground, nor seek to resolve an outstanding theological debate, but instead offered advice on making the Sunday homily more accessible and spoke to the lived experience of Christian faithful. Pope Francis uses his morning homilies to discuss the scripture readings of the day and, in so doing, he reveals what he thinks is important in the life of the Church at this moment. These sermons are not about “reform” if by reform we mean a reorganization of the curia. They are about reform if we mean a conversion of hearts to the Gospel.
These sermons elucidate some of the key themes that animate this pope. The most obvious theme of this papacy is the relentless questioning of that attitude Jesus found among the religious elites of his day and to which all religious elites in every age is prone, the attitude of Pelagianism and of pride. In the early months of this pontificate, C. J. Reid hit the nail on the head when he commented that Pope Francis’ conservative critics sounded like the elder son in the story of the prodigal. Others sound like the Pharisee in the Gospel of Luke who stood in the front of the synagogue and prayed, “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” And, indeed, many leaders in the Church and vocal commentators on Catholic matters have sounded like the elder son and the Pharisee for a long, long time. Francis does not only criticize this stance because it deadens evangelization, although it does. Francis does not only call this out because it reduces our faith to a puritanical moralism, although it does that too. No, Francis speaks against this pelagianism because Jesus spoke against this pelagianism.
This leads to a second central motif of the morning homilies and of this papacy: The Church must get out of itself and go to the peripheries, there to encounter the Lord. The “culture of encounter” is a central motif in Pope Francis’ teaching but he especially calls for us to seek that encounter at the peripheries. Sometimes, you will hear an unsympathetic commentator “explain” that Pope Francis wants us to evangelize the marginalized, but it is actually something different for which the pope calls. In a meaningful sense, it is the poor and the marginalized who evangelize us, who keep we Catholics from becoming pharisaical, who remind us of the stakes in living the Christian life. If you have spent time with the poor, you know how generous they can be with the little they have. If you have been to an AA or NA meeting, you know how powerful God’s grace is when a person has been crushed by addiction. If you have spent time with Special Olympians, you know that courage and joy and all the best in the human spirit is not in the least contingent upon worldly aptitude and success. The poor and the marginalized, the people who live at the periphery, it is they to whom the Gospel remains good news and who, in turn, remind us of just how good the news is. It is the poor and the marginalized who lead us past an upper-middle class moralism, who lead us past the boundaries we erect, who bring us to the heart of Christ because that heart is where the poor live. Last night, I watched Bill Donohue on EWTN explain that following the Christian way if a “high bar,” but, of course, Christ told us His burden is light. It is the poor who perceive this and share it with the whole Church.
Finally, we come to what may be the most important theme of this pontificate, spoken of again and again in his morning sermons, in his major talks, and, I am alerted, given expression later today with a new initiative: mercy. Our culture here in the U.S. invites all manner of self-justification, but that is the one thing that keeps us from God’s mercy. Pope Francis reminds us that God is willing to forgive us again and again, if only we ask, but we are reluctant, we reduce God to ourselves and presume He must get tired of forgiving our sins. But, He doesn’t. It is we who tire of asking forgiveness, who would rather say, “well, it is not a big deal” than to beg for mercy. Here is the lazy pelagianism of the left, diagnosed by Pope Benedict too, a self-satisfaction that demands nothing instead of an honest disposition to plead for mercy, mindful of the grace bestowed on us and the usually pitiable response of our hearts.
In his book, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, Cardinal Walter Kasper makes the point that as Jesus began His ministry, the crowds came to hear Him and He was very popular. It was only when He began to preach the limitless of God’s mercy, to explain what was meant when the prophets relayed God’s desire for clean hearts and not for sacrifice, it was then that the opposition began. In His final trial, the proof of His blasphemy and challenge to the law and the temple was that He had dared to forgive sins. And, so it is with Pope Francis. When he preaches God’s mercy, his critics say he is confusing them or he is watering down the teachings of the Church or he is a Peronist at heart, conflating the Gospel with leftie politics. This is all nonsense, but it is a particular kind of nonsense, the kind of nonsense that hears the parable of the prodigal and does not notice the good news, but with the elder son, feels resentment.
All these themes mark Pope Francis as someone who is truly a follower of Jesus. This is not only a model of pastoral leadership, it is the best kind of teaching. And, as in the time of Jesus, it is the doctors of the law who are scandalized and disappointed (or worse), and the poor and the lame and the marginalized who rejoice. I hope that this dynamic of opposition changes, that his critics will open their hearts not just to him but to Him. And, I hope those who are warmed by Pope Francis’ teaching will take it to heart and allow themselves to be converted too, to deepen their faith and to shed that tendency towards self-assertion and self-justification, the soft pelagianism of the left. The Holy Father, like the God of mercy the pope proclaims, is inviting us all to a genuine discernment of God’s action in the world, and that always surprises. Two years ago today, I would never have predicted the surprised we have seen. Looking ahead, all best are off.