Francis making a difference

Francis on subway


The difference is palpable and when  conservative commentators keep saying he is  cut from the same cloth as Benedict or John Paul II or John XXIII, the effect is jarring, as if apples and a large juicy  slightly bitter orange were being compared. Pope Francis is Third World, intuitive, Latin American, improvisational, passionate lover of Christ and moved primarily by the plight of the poor.


Francis: “We want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world.”


James Carroll, writing in the New Yorker:


Francis is the first Jesuit Pope in history, and his fierce conviction has the particular accent of a religious order that has redefined itself since Vatican II around “faith that promotes justice,” as Jesuits put it now. If Jorge Mario Bergoglio had a conversion moment, Daoust told me, it was probably at the 1974-75 Jesuit Congregation, the worldwide meeting in Rome of the society’s leadership that was summoned by Superior General Pedro Arrupe, of Spain, a controversial liberalizing figure. Arrupe’s priesthood had been defined by the experience of being in Hiroshima when the atom bomb fell, and as Superior he set a new course. Given what Bergoglio was facing in Buenos Aires, the gathering must have been tumultuous for him: his own positions were being challenged. The order embraced an unprecedented understanding of itself. “We can no longer pretend that the inequalities and injustices of our world must be borne as part of the inevitable order of things,” the Congregation declared. To be a Jesuit today “is to engage, under the standard of the Cross, in the crucial struggle of our time: the struggle for faith and that struggle for justice which it includes.” The Jesuits affirmed “belief in a God who is justice because he is love.”


It is still early days and Carroll takes on the ambivalence felt by  many as regards what Pope Francis has not done  might not do to change the position of women or   address fully the  sexual abuse scandals


And yet the change has been astounding and Carroll’s metaphor of the  prodigal’s father shows this shift.


I went to see Davíd Carrasco, the Harvard historian of religion. His high-ceilinged office at the Mesoamerican Archive, in the Peabody Museum, is dominated by an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He is a large middle-aged Latino, bearded and balding, and wears his hair nearly to his shoulders. Without any cue, he said of Francis’s papacy, “What came to me was the prodigal-son story, only here it’s the prodigal father! It’s not the prodigal son who’s gone out and is returning. It’s the prodigal father—the father of the Church who seemed to have gone away.” Carrasco added, “Away from so much of what John XXIII meant.” He went on, “It’s as though there’s a return of this father who is supposed to protect us, guide us, and love us.” A return from abuse, authoritarianism, misogyny—all the ways, beyond the Church, the fathers of this age have let us down.

Is that why the response to Pope Francis has been so outsized? Catholic enthusiasm is understandable, but the globe’s? Mary McAleese told me that even “kick the Pope” Orangemen in Northern Ireland love Pope Francis. The press is obsessed with him. Time recently named him Person of the Year. The Huffington Post reported the speculation that Francis, garbed as a lowly priest, steals out of the Vatican at night to care for Rome’s homeless. Legends like that suggest a new readiness to look at what a Pope can be. Francis is clearly a world figure, but a figure of what? “I would like us to make noise,” he told a throng of young people in Brazil in July. “I want the Church to be in the streets; I want us to defend ourselves against all that is worldliness, comfort, being closed and turned within. Parishes, colleges, and institutions must get out, otherwise they risk becoming N.G.O.s, and the Church is not a non-governmental organization.” But, of course, the Church is an N.G.O.—the largest in the world. Roman Catholicism is the only worldwide institution that crosses boundaries of north and south, east and west, affluence and abject poverty. Given that reach, how can the human family thrive without a reformed, critically minded, ethically responsible Catholic Church? Does Francis’s explicitly Christian message of a loving merciful God survive, even in the secular age, as an inchoate symbol of the human longing for transcendence?


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