Pope Francis is Unique

By Chris Sparks

In my last column, we took a look at the great arc of Church history and touched on a number of the many great storms the Barque of Peter has sailed through and survived. Now, let’s take a look at what’s unique about the present pontificate.

Out of everything Pope Francis has done and said, if I had to pick out how he differs from all his predecessors, my list would be limited to a few crucial facts.

  1. He is from Argentina, from South America.
  2. He is a Jesuit.
  3. He holds impromptu press conferences and offers reporters unvetted interviews.

Each of those has profound impacts on how he speaks and exercises the papal office. Each of those, in some fashion, are the source of the (reported) comments that people react to most negatively. And each of those things is utterly irrelevant to whether we owe him love and obedience, and whether we owe his papal magisterium the same religious submission of mind and will that we owed the magisteria of his predecessors (see Lumen Gentium, 25).

Let’s look at each of the unique marks of Francis.

1. Pope Francis is from Argentina, the first pope to come from Latin America, and the first pope from south of the equator in over a millennium. I think many Americans and western Catholics don’t pay nearly enough attention to what that means for his formation and outlook on the world. The previous popes of the last century, at least through Pius XII, experienced the United States as a bulwark against Nazi totalitarianism, Soviet communism, and many of the human rights abuses and dictatorships of the 20th century. Unlike the Poland of St. John Paul II and the reunited Germany of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the Argentina of Pope Francis doesn’t have a legacy of liberation by U.S. forces. In some ways, quite the reverse. The military dictatorship that prosecuted the so-called “Dirty War” in Argentina, committing human rights atrocities of the worst sort, came to power with initial backing from the United States. Pope Francis, then Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, saved lives and protected people targeted by the regime. 

Also, the previous popes of the last thousand or so years were all European, and were inevitably formed in a Eurocentric way by their upbringing, seeing Europe as Christendom. That began to shift with the Church’s episcopal ordinations of native clergy over the last couple centuries, accelerating under St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II. And now we have a Holy Father from Latin America, the very first from that continent. It should come as no surprise that his words and actions don’t always make easy or automatic sense to us in the United States. Our culture has been heavily shaped by English-language sources, which in turn usually reflect an English and English-speaking European point of view. The Holy Father is a native Spanish speaker, uncomfortable with the English language. His assumptions, formation, and exposure to culture are in many ways different from those of the average U.S. Catholic.

So concerns from English-speaking and -writing Catholics must reach the Holy Father through translation, and his responses must come back through translation. Compound that with the cultural, historical, and other divides — well, it’s no wonder he can seem confusing!

2. Pope Francis is a Jesuit — and that was never supposed to happen. Saint Ignatius very firmly formed the men of his religious society to avoid “ambitioning” for promotion through the ranks of the hierarchy. Indeed, Jesuits are supposed to report each other to their superiors if they ever hear one of their brethren talking about wanting to become a bishop, let alone the Holy Father. So a Jesuit pope wasn’t in the cards — until it happened. Pope Francis was thrust into unprecedented territory by his election. He’s been having to decide how a Jesuit who becomes pope should answer the call of the office, especially since one of the defining characteristics of the Jesuits has from their beginnings been their fourth vow of obedience to the Holy Father (essentially, to be directly available to him for work in the missions).

So Pope Francis is now both a Jesuit and the Holy Father to whom he had pledged special obedience. His Jesuit character is shown through his persistent emphasis on going to the peripheries, to the margins, to mission territory and lands without the faith. That emphasis on reaching those furthest from faith and from Christ was manifest in a special way in the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy that the whole Church celebrated from Dec. 8, 2015, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, through Nov. 20, 2016, the Solemnity of Christ the King. Pope Francis led the whole world to World Youth Day in Poland that year, spending time at the tomb of St. Faustina Kowalska, leading pilgrims in the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and celebrating Mass in front of a massive Divine Mercy Image. Mercy for those on the margins has characterized this pontificate from the very beginning. 

Indeed, as Jesuits have done since the time of St. Ignatius, Pope Francis pushes the boundaries of what’s possible and permissible to the breaking point in order to spread the Gospel to all nations and save as many souls as possible. Other religious congregations in the same mission fields as the Jesuits have been writing home to Rome from the first years of the Jesuits’ existence, questioning the means of evangelization and inculturation used by the Jesuit missionaries. The safeguard throughout was obedience, that the Jesuits could be recalled, reassigned, or ordered to stop at a moment’s notice. Pope Francis lives this obedience, I believe, by always presenting his teachings and changes to Church practice in ways that his successors can alter or end.

3. Pope Francis holds press conferences and offers reporters unvetted interviews. Here, out of everything the Holy Father says or does, is the source of almost all the confusion. We’d gotten used, as a Church, to St. John Paul II, a philosopher and someone who’d gone toe to toe with the communist regime in Poland for decades. His caution in public utterances translated to the papacy. Then Pope Benedict, a man of similar experience and similar caution, was elected pope. And now we have Pope Francis. He had been a man of great caution with the press in Argentina, but something changed for him after his election. The Holy Father has spoken publicly of a tremendous sense of freedom that came to him as he prayed after his election. Now, he will speak to anyone and everyone, it seems, and give remarkably unvarnished answers to questions of all sorts.

The wisdom of this is debatable, and yet I must add that consistently, the actual text of the interviews is far more orthodox, far more sober and Catholic, than the reporting of certain isolated quotes taken out of context would indicate. Consider, for example, the famous (or infamous) words, “Who am I to judge?” As reported, it often seemed a blanket rejection of the Church’s teaching on sexuality and an embrace of modernity’s approach, that two consenting adults could get up to whatever they wanted in the privacy of their bedroom. But that absolutely ignores the full quote:

I believe that when you are dealing with such a person, you must distinguish between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of someone forming a lobby, because not all lobbies are good. This one is not good. If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in a beautiful way, saying ... wait a moment, how does it say it ... it says: “no one should marginalize these people for this, they must be integrated into society.”

As it was with his predecessors, the secular media often misunderstands, misinterprets, misquotes, or otherwise mistakes the Holy Father’s meaning. They then report these mistaken understandings to the world. Many Catholics who once knew better, who would insist that the words of the Holy Father had to be read at the source in order to understand what he’d actually said, now uncritically accept the media portrayal of the Holy Father as a subversive, someone out to change the Church and her teaching on faith and morals in ways that are impossible. That explains many of the controversies about Pope Francis’ pontificate today. For example, one of his most controversial documents, Amoris Laetitia, is a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, not an encyclical or a decree presenting itself as infallible. The controversies surrounding that document stem almost entirely from a couple of footnotes — hardly the means Pope Francis would use if he wanted to bind the faithful and all his successors to now and forever hold what’s included in them!

In my next column, we’ll take a look at what to do if we’re struggling to retain peace of soul in this pontificate, or if we’re even so scared that we’re thinking of jumping ship.

Chris Sparks serves as book editor for the Marian Fathers. He is the author of the Marian Press book How Can You Still Be Catholic? 50 Answers to a Good Question.

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