It was a year ago today that a priest from Argentina was introduced to the world as Pope Francis, asking for prayers. Now that he has graced the covers of Time, Rolling Stone, and The Advocate, what to make of our year with Francis? Alejandro Bermudez is editor of Pope Francis — Our Brother, Our Friend: Personal Recollections about the Man Who Became Pope and co-translator of On Heaven and Earth, a book of conversations the former cardinal of Buenos Aires had with his good friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka. Bermudez, who is director of ACI-Prensa, the world’s largest Spanish-language Catholic news agency, and executive director of Catholic News Agency, talks about Pope Francis’s first year as pontiff on the anniversary of his election.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What is your best explanation and understanding of what people are calling the “Francis effect”?
ALEJANDRO BERMUDEZ: The “Francis effect” is probably the best name, as vague as it is, to describe this phenomenon, since I find hard to pinpoint what has made Pope Francis such a colossal figure in today’s world. Is it his warm, loving concern for the little ones? Is it his testimony of a simple, humble life? Is it his message of mercy and forgiveness? Is it a combination of all those or something else? I don’t think anyone can pinpoint it. But the fact is that Pope Francis has revitalized the presence of the Catholic Church and opened new opportunities to re-propose the tenets of Christianity to a confused world. That is the “Francis effect.”
LOPEZ: Is it important to get to know Jorge Mario Bergoglio — the priest and cardinal of Buenos Aires — to understand this past year with Pope Francis?
BERMUDEZ: I think it is, especially for those who still find Pope Francis’s personality and decisions confusing. I think it is impossible to fully understand him without keeping in mind that he is, first, an Argentinean — a very particular brand of being a Latino — and second, a Jesuit, a true son of St. Ignatius and the Ignatian spirituality.
LOPEZ: Is there a favorite story from Our Brother, Our Friend that best captures him?
BERMUDEZ: There are so many! One of my favorites is the one narrated by José María Poirier, a journalist and scholar who knows the pope’s mind very well. After Pope Benedict’s election, an English journalist asked Poirier to write an article about Bergoglio, knowing that he was some kind of “runner-up,” but nobody knew who he was. Poirier decided to start the article by saying, “What does Cardinal Bergoglio think? Nobody knows.” The article was published, and not long afterward he met Cardinal Bergoglio at a book presentation. “So no one knows what I think?” Bergoglio said to him, smiling. According to Poirier, “I believe that was always a key for him to have great friendliness, to be very gracious, but always maintain a bit ‘in secret’ the complexity of his thought, especially about important matters.”
LOPEZ: What are the underappreciated biographical or experiential facts about the pope that we ought not overlook?
BERMUDEZ: His quiet, almost retired time in Córdova, far away from Buenos Aires and stripped of all responsibilities, after being the youngest Jesuit provincial and director of their house of formation. Why he ended up there is disputed. But the fact is that he spent a year of prayer and silence providing confessions and spiritual direction, and writing a book on Catholic education. Antonio Cardinal Quarracino, his predecessor in Buenos Aires — who chose him as his successor — would describe him at that time as a “Moses coming down from Mount Sinai.” Whatever the reason he ended up there, it was a transformational experience.
LOPEZ: What were some of the most significant moments in the past year that we are in danger of overlooking?
BERMUDEZ: For sure his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel.” There is much attention paid to the nitty-gritty of what he is saying in this or that interview, or in various off-the-cuff comments, but very little attention is paid to the document that he personally, carefully wrote explaining his vision for the Church and Catholics in the world. Whoever wants to really understand where he is going needs to read or reread “The Joy of the Gospel.”
LOPEZ: People keep speculating about what the Francis effect will be for women, for people with same-sex attraction, etc. How do you think this will all work out? Will he eventually fall out of favor if he doesn’t embrace the values of the day? Of, say, Rolling Stone? How will he keep people’s attention?
BERMUDEZ: Pope Francis will not change the doctrine. Period. He will not even buy a subtle change of doctrine under the disguise of “pastoral care.” So whoever is placing expectations on Pope Francis’s changing the doctrine à la Rolling Stone is in for a major disappointment. Could that have a backlash, a “fall from grace” in the eyes of some of the secular press? Most likely. Will he care? Absolutely not. He is equally detached from praise or attacks. Remember the Córdoba experience: He knows what it means to fall from grace and he can take it.
Having said that, he is absolutely committed to having an open, honest conversation within the Church about how to address pastorally the needs and sufferings of many people who feel marginalized and excluded. Even if such exclusion is of its own making, that reality is still a pastoral challenge. Pope Francis really wants to go after the lost sheep. Many Catholics love that passage, but are not necessarily willing to “walk the walk” in the world. Francis wants all Catholics in motion.
#ad#LOPEZ: What is the pope’s position on civil unions, anyway? There was some confusion recently about this.
BERMUDEZ: Truth is, we don’t know. In his latest interview he was speaking of civil unions in general, which in vast parts of the world — and the ones Pope Francis is familiar with — are not reserved to gay couples but include heterosexual cohabitation. To conclude from his few words about the issue that he is “open to consider them for gay couples” is either naïve or dishonest. I can predict this: If he finds out more about what they mean and finds, in good conscience, that they may weaken traditional marriage, he will not support them. Again, it is crucial to understand that he is deeply committed to encourage creative, merciful pastoral practices, but he will not be changing doctrine.
LOPEZ: What is the upcoming synod on the family? Will it actually be important? What is the Church learning about its people in preparation for it?
BERMUDEZ: It will definitely be an important event. Most of the press is concentrated on issues such as Communion for the divorced and remarried, but the truth is that what Pope Francis wants is a much deeper, wider overhaul of the family. Based on both his personal and his pastoral experience, Pope Francis understands that the survival of society and the growth of the Church depends on the survival of the family as an institution. The synod will be an occasion for wide discussion, but at the end it will be the possibly new pastoral policies and the apostolic exhortation with which Francis will follow the synod that will really count.
LOPEZ: Where does Pope Benedict’s resignation fit into history, a year in? To what extent does this matter?
BERMUDEZ: It basically opens up the Church to a reality: As medicine allows us to grow older and technology makes the world much faster and more complex, the gap between an aging man and his ability to respond to leadership challenges posed by such a world will widen. Thus, Pope Francis has said that we should get used to seeing more retired popes in the future.
LOPEZ: How should Catholics in the pews, some who have found themselves sad, angry, confused, scared, or dismissive of Pope Francis after an interview or statement or media report, be receiving him?
BERMUDEZ: I really don’t know. In my humble experience, once someone gets bitter with the pope, the more you try to show him or her the positive, the more pugnacious they become. I think the change has to do more with something that we Catholics call “conversion” than with “conviction.”
LOPEZ: You spent a decent amount of time in Rome. Has it changed with Pope Francis?
BERMUDEZ: A lot. Since the reform of the curia is still in process, there is uncertainty, speculation, insecurity. Surprisingly, that does not seem to be all bad. I find much more dynamism, energy, and positive expectation. That’s inside the walls. Outside, Rome is crazy. Romans and tourists just can’t have enough of Francis. He has taken the city by storm. A storm that for now is not receding.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.