What Francis is all about

One of the more insightful articles I’ve read on the phenomenon that is Pope Francis: Eamon Duffy in the NYRB. I’m quoting some of the insights that place  the Pope’s approaches and  style of leadership in a clear but nuanced way.


The conclave that elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope in March 2013 was beset by a sense of scandal and dysfunction at the heart of the church. The cardinals met in the wake of the startling resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and under a rain of revelations about corruption and money laundering in the Vatican bank, clerical sexual abuse, and the failure of the church authorities to confront it—all given lurid coloring by the “Vatileaks scandal,” the leaking to the press by Pope Benedict’s own butler of hundreds of confidential documents revealing corruption, maladministration, and internecine feuding within the Curia itself.

In the run-up to the conclave, cardinal after cardinal demanded a pope who would purge the church of these ills, starting with the reform of the Curia. Francis was elected largely because he was perceived as someone who would deliver this. His pastoral emphasis on the missionary proclamation of the mercy of God to fallible people in difficult situations seemed to point away from sterile preoccupation with ritual and doctrinal niceties, bureaucratic obstructionism, and the ignoble protection of the church’s institutional interests.

One of Francis’s first major acts was the establishment of a commission of eight (subsequently nine) cardinals charged with the radical overhaul of the church’s central structures, starting with the Vatican bank. His very choice of name signaled a turn away from the doctrinal and institutional concerns of his immediate predecessors, and pointed instead to his passionate insistence on the church’s loving engagement with the poor who make up most of the world’s population.



But above all, Francis is the first pope to embrace wholeheartedly the Second Vatican Council’s aspiration for a church in which authority is shared among the whole episcopate, rather than monolithically focused in the papacy.


The exalted doctrine of priesthood that has been in favor during the last two pontificates undoubtedly contributed to a resurgent clericalism (and interest in ecclesiastical millinery) among many of those trained for the priesthood since the late 1970s. It has been notably absent from Francis’s utterances: he has abolished honorific titles and dress for the younger clergy working in the Curia, since for him priesthood is essentially about service to the poor and vulnerable, rather than a symbolic status or the exercise of sacramental power.


There was a sense in Benedict’s pontificate that the best response to the crisis of secularization might be a strong repudiation of secular culture and consolidation within a smaller, purer, and more assertive church. By contrast, Francis believes that the church

is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.

The church must be “capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy” in “a world of ‘wounded’ persons in need of understanding, forgiveness, love.” It must never retreat into itself, never opt for “rigidity and defensiveness.” It works with people as they are, not as they ought to be, taking pastoral risks to meet human need, even if in the process “its shoes get soiled by the mud of the streets.”



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