Boston — In order to understand Pope Francis, one must understand a uniquely Argentine theology, the theology of the people.
A relatively small portion of the church even knew about teologia del pueblo before Francis was elected as pope, but Fr. Carlos Maria Galli, a priest in the Buenos Aires archdiocese and longtime advisor to Pope Francis, parsed out the nuances for a small crowd April 4 at Boston College. In his first trip to the United States, Galli spoke about the Latin American intellectual roots of Francis' pontificate, and Boston College theologians placed it into context within the increasingly Latino U.S. Catholic church.
Galli and then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio were two of the primary authors of the concluding documents of the 2007 meeting of Latin American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil. The path forward for the church outlined in those documents is now simply referred to as Aparecida, a theology that Francis once helped define, and which, as Galli said, now defines his papacy.
Aparecida calls for the spreading of a missionary movement, a preferential option for the poor, and an emphasis on popular religion, or the people's religion. In Spanish, the word popular has a double meaning, encompassing the English definition of popular as well as something that pertains to the poor or to "the people," very broadly speaking.
In listening to Galli's lecture at Boston College, Boston writer and attorney Jerome Maryon was struck by what can be lost in translation when speaking about Francis' theology.
"There are elements of popular speech that will have to be re-evangelized for us to have that understanding," Maryon said.
Francis' call for a poor church and a church for the poor goes back to his long-held belief that reality is best understood from the peripheries. Now, the world's peripheries contain the vast majority of its Catholics.
As Galli pointed out, over the last 100 years, there has been an inversion in the composition of the global Catholic community. In 1910, 70 percent of Catholics lived in the global North (with the vast majority in Europe) and 30 percent lived in the South (with the vast majority in Latin America). In 2010, the portions were almost exactly reversed, with 68 percent of Catholics living in the global South -- 39 percent in Latin America, 16 percent in Africa and 12 percent in Asia.
Francis' pontificate brings to bear the values most promoted in Latin America to the reform of the entire church. And these values, though not called theology of the people in this country, are very much aligned with the U.S. Hispanic Catholic theology. Hosffman Ospino, Boston College assistant professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education sees this as an opportunity for broader dialogue across the range of countries in which "the message of Pope Francis resonates clearly and loudly."
When Francis was elected by his peers to serve as the Bishop of Rome and lead the church, 43 percent of Catholics in the United States looked to him as one of their own -- not just a Latin American pope, but a Latino pope. And one who understands a distinctly Latino spirituality.
Ospino argues there has been fertile ground for a pope like Francis in the United States thanks to the Latino community.
"In many theological contexts, particularly in the academy," Ospino said, "we speak about Francis as a break with perhaps different models for doing theology. But as a matter of fact, when we look at what has been happening in the Latino community for the last 50 years, what we see is a continuity of movement that has been happening for the last five decades."
While some have criticized Francis' experience as being too parochial, or localized, Galli describes him as the first global pope. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in 1936, when Buenos Aires had 2.4 million people. Today, the metropolitan area has 13 million. Galli calls Francis the first pope born into a big city of the 20th century and the first pope in a global society who thinks of the connections between the local and the global.
In an interview with NCR in Spanish before the Boston College lecture, Galli indicated the criticism that Francis does not have a strong enough global outlook is disingenuous. One must look no further than the pope's two encyclicals and apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium as proof of his priorities.
"Is he provincial, the man whose three messages to humanity today are about the inclusion of the poor, a dialogue for peace, and the ecological care of creation? Or is he conscious of global problems?" Galli said.
Another critique of Francis may come from those who do not understand how Latin American culture shapes his behavior. This pope prefers dialogue and candid engagement over scripted interactions. He appears human, even fallible. And the impression creates a closeness among his supporters, perhaps especially Latinos.
"This is a revolution in the vision of the papacy," Galli said.
Usually a new pope is elected because of the death of his predecessor. With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, Galli said there was no death of a pope, but one could argue there was a death in the way of being a pope.
Jenny Bernal de Baker, a Boston College dual degree master's candidate in theology and social work, found this to be important context, especially in a country in which some of the changes Francis has brought to the papacy may make some people uncomfortable or afraid.
"In a way," Bernal de Baker said, "he's just being Latino. Which is a beautiful thing."
Looking to the future of a church marked by Francis' time as its leader, Rafael Luciani, a fellow in Boston College's Office of the President, argued that knowing Francis' framework, both theologically and pastorally, can help understand where he will take the church.
Francis understands, Luciani said, that pastoral ministry and theology must form a union -- practice first and theological reflection as the next step.
"Theological and philosophical reflections on humanity and the world can sound tiresome and abstract unless they are grounded in a fresh analysis of our present situation," Luciani said.
Luciani does not see Francis' theological perspective as populist, but as one that responds to a popular reality, or the lived experiences of the poor -- and not only among individuals, but the entire community. Even in a post-modern society, where it is common to limit religion to a private experience, Latin American theology focuses on creating interpersonal bonds.
While there is much difference across Latin America and high levels of socioeconomic inequality within it, Galli referenced the great affinity even from one extreme of the region to another. A common faith, language, and culture has united all of Latin America in a way that is not repeated across distant points of Europe or Asia.
This sense of belonging, Luciani says, allows individuals to obey the commandment of love. The key is to get beyond theoretical concepts and open oneself up to genuine interactions with others. In laying this foundation, then, Francis presents the wider church with a challenge: "That of inserting … ourselves into God's faithful people and the concrete needs of the present day while avoiding the dangers … of myopic activism, pastoral functionalism, academic irrelevance … and ecclesiastical clericalism," Luciani said.
[Tara García Mathewson is a freelance writer based in Boston.]