Do you remember where you were five years ago, when the white smoke signaled that the College of Cardinals had selected the successor to Pope Benedict XVI? I do. I was standing in the campus ministry office at Boston College, dumbfounded at hearing that the conclave has chosen a pope from Latin America … a Jesuit … and that he had chosen the name “Francis.” (Remember the confusion over whether he would be “Pope Francis I” or “Pope Francis”?)
Five years into his papacy, it might be easy forget that Francis has been a pope of surprises. Sure, he’s the first non-European pope in well over a thousand years and the first Jesuit, which is shocking enough. And yes, his chosen name is unprecedented, prompted by advice from his friend, Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, who hugged him and exhorted, “Don’t forget the poor.” At the moment of his introduction at St. Peter’s Square, he broke with tradition by asking the 150,000 people gathered to pray for him before offering his first blessing as pope. The surprises continued: he refused to use a platform to elevate himself over the cardinals when he was introduced as Pope Francis, eschewed a private car and rode the bus with his brother cardinals instead, and elected to live in a small suite in the Vatican guesthouse rather than the Apostolic Palace, unlike his predecessors. His simple lifestyle has elicited widespread praise, as well as his work to make the Vatican more hospitable to those experiencing homelessness in Rome. Francis’ pontificate orbits around consistent words and actions marked by humility, tenderness, and inclusion. Perhaps the best word to describe Pope Francis’ example is mercy. If Pope John Paul II’s legacy is tied to his travels to evangelize (104 international trips to 129 countries, drawing immense crowds), he may be considered “The Missionary Pope” while Pope Benedict XVI’s emphasis on ecological stewardship earned him the nickname “The Green Pope,” and so it appears that Pope Francis may be remembered as “The Mercy Pope.”
The world has never seen a pope like Francis. As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of his pontificate, five key traits highlight his character, intentions, and impact: his radical vision for the Church, the way he mediates mercy, his attention to the power of place, his commitment to listening, and his support for synodality.
1. Francis has a radical vision for the church:
When Francis met with 5,000 journalists to introduce himself as pope, he described his vision for the Church as one that “is poor and for the poor.” This hearkens back to the words of Pope John XXIII, who, in a radio address a month before Vatican II, proclaimed his desire for a “Church of all and in particular the Church of the poor.” This is a radical vision for the Church because radical refers to “going to the origin” or the “roots.” This reflects the core values of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry (e.g., Matthew 25:31-46), as well as the witness of the first members the Church (e.g., Acts 4:32-35).
Francis’ vision for the Church cannot be reduced to a service agency, however. In Evangelii Gaudium (“Joy of the Gospel”), Francis articulates his vision for the Church as reclaiming our relationship with God and one another. The Church is to be a living encounter with Christ, which means that Christians are to recognize Christ in the other as much as they are called to be Christ for the other. This is not some weighty, pious burden but an invitation to deep and lasting consolation resulting from experiencing the love of God in and through loving others. Francis’ vision for the Church is rooted in communion and a mission of renewed enthusiasm marked by joy and hope. Francis doesn’t just insist that joy is the best barometer of the Christian faith; he radiates joy in every encounter.
At the same time, Francis’ radical vision for the Church is to be like a “field hospital after battle.” The Church goes to the margins to tend to the needs of those suffering the effects of personal and social sin. Drawing near others involves savoring and sharing the “Joy of the Gospel,” which “tells us tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 88).
Francis has not changed any doctrine, but he seems to be shifting emphasis from defining or developing doctrine to the process of personal and communal discernment. Not only does this stem from his Jesuit formation (in the tradition of St. Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises”), but it highlights the freedom and obedience of one’s conscience as articulated in the Catechism (no. 1776). This is crucial for Francis’ vision of the Church as constituted by an informed and empowered laity whose full, conscious, and active participation is guided by spiritual discernment. This helps us look to the future where we all have a role to play in being available to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our midst, cooperating in the Church’s communion and mission. Any discussion of “The Francis Effect” on the Church has to account for the way Francis is energizing the laity to embrace their baptismal vocation to partner in the priesthood of Christ (CCC no. 1268).
Ultimately, Francis’ vision for the Church is a movement toward reform. Francis calls the Church – from personal beliefs and actions to institutional practices and structures – to turn away from sin, repent for the ways we have failed to love, and rededicate ourselves to Jesus. Each day is an opportunity to be rekindled by the “fire of Easter.”
2. Francis mediates the mercy of God:
When, as a new pope, he answered the question, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Francis’ reply was simple: “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” Francis reveals a person deeply in touch with the experience of God’s mercy. (This, too, points to Francis’ Jesuit formation, including the first week of the “Spiritual Exercises.”) In his book, The Name of God is Mercy, Francis writes:
“The centrality of mercy, which for me is Jesus’ most important message, has slowly evolved over the years in my work as a priest, as a consequence of my experience as a confessor, and thanks to the many positive and beautiful stories that I have known … [mercy] means opening one’s heart to wretchedness. And immediately we go to the Lord: mercy is the divine attitude which embraces, it is God’s giving himself to us, accepting us, and bowing to forgive … we can say that mercy is God’s identity card.”
Francis explains that he sees God’s character and purpose through the lens of the gerund (and neologism), “mercifying:” the act of showing mercy. We typically translate mercy as loving-kindness, but as I have written previously, this betrays the rich and varied meaning of the word in light of its biblical heritage. Mercy involves strength and steadfastness, graciousness and gratuitousness, faithfulness and tenderness, forgiveness and responsibility, solidarity and accountability. Mercy is “the measure by which we shall be judged” (to borrow a phrase from St. John of the Cross).
Mercy is the crux of Francis’ theological vision, the true north of his moral compass, the heart of his imagination for what is possible. Mercy inspires Francis’ pastoral approach, which he urges his brother priests and bishops to share in becoming more like shepherds “who smell like sheep” because of their close accompaniment with the people of God. This resonates throughout Amoris Laetitia, where Francis highlights mercy as a test of the Church’s welcome, especially to those who are vulnerable, marginalized, and in “irregular situations.” He insists, “The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it” (no. 296). Not only is mercy the work of God in our midst, but it is the “criterion for knowing who his true children are” (no. 310).
Francis is quick to point out that mercy is not without a backbone; it is essentially tied to truth and justice. However, Francis’ emphasis on mercy – and the way he mediates mercy in his words and actions – underscores his belief that mercy should lead the way forward. In Amoris Laetitia, he affirms that mercy should inspire our personal and communal “pastoral discernment” to be “filled with love, which is ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and above all integrate” (no. 312). Mercy motivates Francis’ commitment to inclusion (a theme that can be traced from his early days as pope, to his 2017 TED Talk, “The Only Future Worth Building Includes Everyone,” to the current campaign to #ShareJourney with migrants and refugees through the four-step process to welcome, protect, promote, and integrate our brothers and sisters on the move, those who – just like us – are seeking peace in their families, homes, and neighborhoods). In those moments when Francis embraces a child, a man covered with tumors, or rushes to the side of a police officer who fell off her horse, he incarnates God-Who-Is-Mercy in the world and encourages us to do the same.
3. Francis knows place matters:
Francis recently shared in an interview that he doesn’t like to travel and he didn’t intend to travel much as pope. But as the migrant crisis – especially those fleeing chaos in the Middle East and Africa – continued to bring hundreds of desperate people to the shores of Italy, Francis said their suffering was like a “thorn in the heart.” Francis celebrated Mass on the tiny island of Lampedusa to denounce the “globalization of indifference” that turns a blind eye, deaf ear, cold heart, and closed hand to the thousands of people fleeing violence, economic deprivation, famine, drought, and flooding. In his homily, Francis reflected:
“Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: “poor soul…!” and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!”
Francis’ critique of the “globalization of indifference” goes beyond condemning moral apathy; he also points to the solution, which is accomplished by following the example of the Samaritan. This means interrupting our schedule, putting our agenda on hold, going out of our way and into the ditch to draw near to others in need. Proximity with the poor, marginalized, and oppressed will burst the “soap bubbles” of our self-concern (as anyone who has engaged in direct service knows). We learn about solidarity through contact with other people. This firsthand encounter serves as the catalyst for the kind of compassion, courage, generosity, and hope required to be the kind of people who routinely “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
In a globalized, digital world, one’s physical place might seem to be less significant. But Francis understands that we are formed by our social location. This is why he took up residence in the Vatican guesthouse, why he opts for a Fiat instead of a limo, why he can be found ministering to and with those in need, day and night. When Pope Francis was asked about moments of particular consolation during his papacy, he discussed his visit to Tacloban in 2015. He went to show his support after the island was devastated by a hurricane but he was the one gifted by all the smiles – the irrepressible joy – of all those who came to see him and celebrate the Eucharist together. Even in the midst of a tropical storm, Francis’ physical presence was a consolation to the faithful, just as they have been to him.
This is why Francis doesn’t just insist that we should be building bridges, not walls; he goes to the US-Mexico border to celebrate the Eucharist with people separated by the border wall. Standing at the border near Juárez (where more than 1500 women and girls have been murdered since 1993), Francis brings attention to the place where more than 6,000 migrants have died since 2000, a “mass disaster” that goes unnoticed by too many. When Francis celebrates the Eucharist at the border, he shines a light on the Body of Christ as a “body of broken bones,” disfigured by drug smuggling, human trafficking, and unchecked violence. In his homily, Francis speaks from this place to conscientize Christians and all people of good will, pleading, “Let us together ask our God for the gift of conversion, the gift of tears, let us ask him to give us open hearts … No more death! No more exploitation! There is always time to change, always a way out and always an opportunity, there is always the time to implore the mercy of God.”
By word and deed, Francis exhorts us to move our feet to draw near our brothers and sisters rather than stand in judgment at them from a distance. This is what it means to be a church that is like a “field hospital after battle,” going to the frontiers that are from the center of status, privilege, and power. When we take up the vantage point of the vulnerable, we better understand the circumstances they face, the personal and structural obstacles to their dignity and freedom, and the ways that this restriction of choice becomes a deprivation of life.
And Francis recognizes that when we cannot take up a particular location ourselves, we can still be formed by having a place brought to us. This is why he celebrated Mass with crosses and a chalice made from the wood of capsized boats that carried migrants. (Theologian Fr. Dan Groody travels with a chalice made from this same wood, giving emphasis to the connection between Christ’s suffering and those of these “crucified peoples.”) Every time we attend Mass, we are invited to think, feel, and pray in union with the whole Church, a church that Francis calls to be “without frontiers and a mother to all.” Francis’ travels bring to light forgotten people and places, making the Church more “catholic” (i.e., “pertaining to the whole” or universal) in seeking to affirm unity in its diversity.
4. Francis listens:
When Francis goes to the margins, he doesn’t only go to evangelize; he also goes to be evangelized. He takes seriously Jesus’ claim that he can be found in the least, the last, and the lowly (Matthew 25:40). He seeks to learn about the lived experiences of others and to draw on this wisdom to enrich the whole Church. This is why he made sure Laudato Si’ was informed by bishops, scientists, and people living in the Global South so that his call to care for all creation would be theologically sound, empirically-grounded, and prophetically inspired by the experiences of those who are already facing the effects of climate change (the poor are being hit first and worst). As a result of this listening, Pope Francis clarified how and why the great command to love of God and neighbor is essentially linked to care for our shared home, our ecological common good. He asserts the need for ecological conversion and integral development: “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the underprivileged, and at the same time protecting nature” (no. 139). Francis beckons for each of us to pause from the busyness of our daily routine to “hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (no. 49).
Francis’ habit of listening is surely what gave rise to his famous “Who am I to judge?” line in response to a question about homosexuality. It is the reason why, earlier this year, he married the flight attendants on a plane in Chile – and reminded critics that “sacraments are for people” (which sounds a lot like Jesus responding to his doubters in Mark 2:27). Francis has been formed by this practice of listening, and this is beginning to shape the Church, as well. His stress on listening was the impetus for the Lineamenta that informed the pastoral priorities in Amoris Laetitia. During his visit to the United States, he highlighted the need for dialogue, including his willingness to be a part of that process himself. In the midst of controversy surrounding the church’s mishandling of priests’ abuse of children, Francis continues to listen to victims of abuse – almost weekly. (“They are left annihilated. Annihilated!” he reports.) Francis’s listening will continue to shape the Church in the future, as he seeks counsel on questions related to married priests, women deacons, and even as he considers what his adversaries and critics have to say about him.
Francis’ commitment to listening shows his spiritual maturity. He seeks to be attentive and responsive to the movement of the Holy Spirit, not just in his own life, but among the whole people of God. His careful listening also points back to his Jesuit formation, in the tradition of St. Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises.” Those of us who have been Jesuit-educated can easily detect the ways that Francis “seeks God in all things” (through the “spiritual senses” to grow in dedication to and affection for what God loves), how he is a man “for and with others” (avoiding that “which might separate us from others”), how he demonstrates “care for the whole person” (making us responsible to promote human dignity), and his dedication to a “faith that does justice” (to pursue the fullness of life for all). Francis’ discernment of the will of God is rooted in the vision of Vatican II: listening to the joys and hopes, griefs and sorrows of the Church. He does more than “read the signs of the times;” he hears what they mean to God’s people. Like other beloved South American bishops (e.g., Câmara and Romero), Francis feels with the Church. His pastoral approach is profoundly Latin American, marked by a theology of accompaniment en conjunto (together). It is about sharing – not wielding – power as a discipleship of equals.
5. Francis embraces synodality:
Of course, listening matters little if it does not lead to action. Aside from the emphasis on mercy, the hallmark of Francis’ pontificate has been his support for synodality. For most, the word “synod” might denote a gathering of bishops. But the Greek roots of the word mean “journeying together.” This implies more than listening and shared discernment (e.g., the “evangelical discernment” he outlines in Evangelii Gaudium, no. 51). Synodality requires that we build partnerships. Synods – most notably on matters related to the family in 2014 and 2015 and the upcoming synod on young people that will begin in Rome next week – foster mutual respect, support, and accountability. They promote listening that becomes the pathway for collaboration as “coworkers in the vineyard.”
Synodality offers a more inclusive and egalitarian model for being church. It necessarily involves dismantling barriers to full and equal participation, especially those created by the sins of racism, sexism, and homophobia. In the spirit of subsidiarity, it assigns responsibility at the lowest effective level. Synodality helps the Church to become more freely and fully one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Francis’ endorsement of synodality is not an abdication of his authority, but a delegation of authority to those who are in the best position to offer fitting pastoral care. Bishop McElroy in San Diego offers an excellent case study of how synodality can expand our imagination of what is possible in response to Amoris Laetitia.
Ultimately, that’s the point of sharing the journey in synodality: to expand our imagination of what is possible as followers of Christ. Imagination is not about fantasy or illusion. Imagination – in a truly Ignatian way – is ultimately a function of our deepest desires. Imagination makes it possible to wake up from the delusion that we are separate from each other or that some lives matter more than others. Imagination calls each of us to be visionaries, seeking the reign of God in our midst so that we can continue to reach for it to become ever more fully realized in our time and place.
Francis’ encouragement of synodality reminds me of the line by the Jesuit priest and poet Dan Berrigan: if you want to be hopeful, you have to do hopeful things. Synodality is a sign of great hope; Francis trusts in the assembly, the people of God, the church. He is confident that the Holy Spirit is leading the way through the sensus fidelium, even if the way forward will not be in clear black-and-white terms. Francis rejects the allure of black-and-white thinking because such a facile approach does not cohere with the rich diversity of human experience. Through synodality, Francis is making room for the Holy Spirit – and for an empowered laity, too.
Indeed, these last five years with Francis give us many reasons to be filled with gratitude, just as they give us reasons to be filled with hope for what the future holds. There is more work to be done and Francis’ fifth anniversary is a time for us to be renewed in sharing this work. What would it look like for you to adopt Francis’ radical vision for the Church, his manner of mediating mercy, drawing near people and places of great need, listening to learn from others, and sharing the journey through collaboration? In what ways can we more fully embrace our baptismal vocation and make more room for the Holy Spirit to lead us where God needs us? What can we imagine possible for ourselves, our Church, and our world?
We do not know what is in store for us next. But Pope Francis offers some sage advice for the journey ahead:
“In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this home that has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good that exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast. In union with all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God, for ‘if the world has a beginning and if it has been created, we must enquire who gave it this beginning, and who was its Creator.’ Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope” (Laudato Si’ no. 244).
Pope Francis gives us many reasons – past, present, and future – to bask in the joy of our hope. The Mercy Pope is a living witness of God’s inexhaustible and unconditional tenderness, just as we are called to be, too.