Looking a bit uncomfortable in the spotlights, Jorge Mario Bergoglio came out on the central loggia of the Vatican basilica on the evening of March 13, 2013, and introduced himself to his new diocese as a man from “the end of the earth.” Less than nine months later, this hitherto obscure, former archbishop of Buenos Aires, who had been rescued from ecclesiastical oblivion in the early 1990s by John Paul II, was on the cover of Time, celebrated around the world as the dominant personality of 2013. Now, a full year into his pontificate, Pope Francis continues to be a kind of papal Rorschach blot onto which Catholics of all points of view, as well as politicians and pundits, project their aspirations and fears for the Catholic Church and its place in the 21st-century scheme of things.
A year after John Paul II was elected, the Church and the world knew that this “man from a far country” (as he had described himself the night of his election) was a formidable intellect and a charismatic leader who could rally millions of ordinary souls to a great cause — their own interior liberation from the Communist culture of the lie. A year into the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the world and the Church knew that it would be in continuity with that of Joseph Ratzinger’s predecessor; the retrenchment that some feared, and for which others hoped, would not take place, and Benedict XVI, like John Paul II, would secure the Church’s understanding of the Second Vatican Council as a Council of reform in continuity with the great tradition of the Church.
A year into the papacy of Pope Francis, however, the world and the Church continue to wonder just what this pontificate will bring — and no small part of that puzzlement, it seems to me, has to do with the “narrativizing of the pope” that has been underway in much of the world media for the better part of a year. Perhaps now, on this first anniversary of his election to the Chair of Peter, it’s time to set aside the narratives and look at what the pope has actually said and done, in order to get a better sense of where he may be leading more than 1.2 billion Catholics and those outside the Catholic Church who look to Francis for leadership and inspiration.
His most significant papal document to date, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, showed him to be a man completely committed to reenergizing the Church as a missionary enterprise. This evangelical vision of the Catholic future, which was the dominant motif of the last half of the pontificate of John Paul II, is also in continuity with a regularly repeated injunction of Benedict XVI: The days of culturally transmitted Catholicism, or what some might call Catholicism by osmosis, are over and done with. But while Benedict XVI evinced a certain nostalgia for the culturally embedded Catholicism of his Bavarian childhood, Pope Francis has made it quite clear that there is to be no yearning for what is now irretrievably past. At Vatican II, the Catholic Church came to grips with the fact that it could no longer be a politically kept institution; the days of religious establishment were over. Pope Francis is insisting that the Church confront the fact that it can no longer be a culturally kept institution, given the toxicity of postmodern Western culture and its aggressive distaste for Biblical religion.
Six years before his election to the papacy, Jorge Mario Bergoglio led the bishops of Latin America to a new understanding of the impossibility of “kept” Catholicism, at the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, which met at the Marian shrine of Aparecida, Brazil. The closing document of the Aparecida conference, read through the prism of the past year, now looks like a preview of the evangelical radicalism of Pope Francis’s papacy. For the bishops at Aparecida pulled no punches, writing that “a Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of faith, to occasional participation in some sacraments, to the repetition of doctrinal principles, to bland or nervous moralizing . . . [cannot] withstand the trials of time.”
If the Aparecida document had been better known north of the Rio Grande, Catholics who have been shocked by some of Francis’s more stinging comments about aspects of Catholic life and practice might not have been so surprised. In any event, Aparecida was a matter not primarily of scolding but of summoning. For the passage in the Aparecida document just cited was immediately followed by a call to conversion: “We must all start again from Christ.” Every Catholic — the pope, the cardinals, bishops and priests and those in consecrated life, and lay Catholics in a myriad of circumstances — must recognize that we were all baptized into a missionary vocation and that we all enter mission territory every day.
This missionary or evangelical thrust is the framework in which Francis’s reform of the papacy, the Roman Curia, clerical life, and Vatican finances begins to come into focus.
For all his high media profile throughout the world, Pope Francis is actually committed to a certain downsizing of the papacy. His recent complaint about the image of the pope as “Superman,” in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, is not simply a matter of Bergoglio’s objecting to journalists’ turning him into something he knows he isn’t; it reflects his sense that, when the pope is the sole center of attention in matters Catholic, all others are getting a pass on their evangelical responsibilities. Much attention has been paid, over the past year, to what are essentially symbolic aspects of this papal downsizing: Francis’s residence in what was once known in media-speak as “the five-star Vatican hotel” but is now habitually referred to as the “humble Vatican guesthouse”; his more spare approach to papal liturgy; the simplicity of his ring and pectoral cross; his use of a Ford rather than a Mercedes. These things have their (modest) importance. But what really counts are the things that are rarely noted, much less commented upon: the dramatic decline in the role of the pope’s personal secretary, which had grown exponentially in recent pontificates; the pope’s insistence that, while he is the decider, things to be decided must be thrashed out thoroughly and openly before he decides, and that the thrashing must go on with him present, primus inter pares, but by no means the only voice in the debate; his willingness to hear correction, and to change because of it; his determination to make the world synod of bishops something more than a platform for enervating episcopal rhetoric.