The anchors of The Today Show were aflutter. Habitual viewers of this morning program are aware that over-excitement has become the primary disposition of the anchors and the rotating cast of meteorologists/journalists/pop culture icons charged with reporting upon Twitter trends. In this particular case, the excitement was not facilitated by Will and Kate’s New York sojourn and their meeting with Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Rather, The Today Show was covering Pope Francis’ recent comments (which it turns out he never made) about the salvation of pets.
Of course, those of us who watch this program each morning know that Pope Francis is a frequent topic of conversation among those reporting from the heart of Rockefeller Center. Every speech that he gives, every homily that he preaches, each interview he conducts becomes a source of new information about the role of the Church in the modern world. The significance of Pope Francis in the popular imagination is not limited to the morning news. Conversation with strangers on planes about my profession as a theologian (a practice that I have generally avoided at all costs) inevitably leads to a discussion of how Pope Francis is “transforming” Catholicism. Recently, while at a conference of youth ministers in San Antonio, nearly every youth minister with whom I spoke expressed a desire to transform their ministry to focus upon the message of Pope Francis.
Why has this man’s ministry as successor of Peter attracted so much attention not simply from ecclesial insiders but from the world at large? This question was the impetus that led the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame to dedicate a special issue of our journal, Church Life: A Journal for the New Evangelization to Pope Francis and his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). As an academic unit, our approach to this question had to transcend those face-value assessments that have become de rigeur among those offering a more superficial analysis of the Franciscan papacy. That is, Pope Francis is not the anti-Benedict, the non-dogmatic and “progressive” response to the reign of conservative terror enacted by Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This narrative (common enough among self-titled traditionalists and progressives) is too facile—the result of interpreters who selectively construct an image of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis alike. Pope Benedict’s own writings (as my own undergraduate students are surprised to learn) are suffused with the same existential and poetic vision as our present Argentinian pontiff. Likewise, Pope Francis is more likely to refer to the temptation of the devil than Benedict XVI, a fact that has generally been passed over by the editorial columnists of The New York Times.
Of course, the peril of dismissing what has become a normative account is that you become responsible for offering your own counter-narrative. Perhaps what makes Pope Francis so attractive to the contemporary world is that he is actually pointing beyond himself toward Jesus Christ. This relatively unknown (among those of us in the United States) Argentinian and Jesuit archbishop has pointed the Church beyond its own political bickering, its own arguments, its own myopic focus upon survival toward the transformation of the world made possible through the Word made flesh. As Evangelii Gaudium makes clear, we are not forced to decide between the love of Jesus Christ and a commitment to a transformed social order.
I’m pleased that Millennial asked me to introduce the journal to its readers. The journal is available for free online below or you can check out individual articles that you may find interesting:
Church Life: The Joy of the Gospel (full) (pdf version)
Patrick Cruitt, “Pope Francis and the Catholicity of Catholicism”
Leonard DeLorenzo, “Francis’ Healthy Reminder: On the Priority of Joy in the Gospel of Jesus Christ”
Jessica Keating, “Pope Francis, the Dignity of the Person, and the ‘Revolution of Tenderness’ “
Amanda Osheim, “Primacy of Grace: The Joy of the Gospel and the People of God”
Andrea Smith Shappell, “Learning From the Poor Locally and Globally: A Response to Evangelii Gaudium”
Timothy P. O’Malley is director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, teaches in the department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, and is the author of Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love (Liturgical Press, 2014).