by Kochurani Abraham
Pope Francis’ papacy is iconoclastic in many respects. Jorge Bergoglio taking the name ‘Francis’ as Pope, was in itself a revolutionary step as he broke away from the tradition of the earlier pontiffs. As the leading theologian Hans Kung observes, the new Pope with the surprising and programmatic name is a challenge to the Roman system, in terms of both spiritual and institutional reform. (Kung, “Don’t let spring turn to winter - Power and poverty”, 2013)
The choice of this name was indeed evangelical and Francis did not delay in translating to life why he opted to be the namesake of the ‘Poverello’ . The simplicity that has characterized his papacy right from its start has been a testimonial to the politics of this choice. His humble lifestyle as evident in the hostel he chose to stay and the public transport he accesses, his use of language that is comprehensible even to ordinary people and his very approachable ways of relating to people - all testify to the uniqueness of Francis’s papacy and the rejuvenation it promises to the 21st century Catholic Church.
On Maundy Thursday shortly after his election, Pope Francis washed the feet of young prisoners including a Muslim girl at a juvenile detention center outside Rome. In doing so, he was not breaking tradition for its own sake, but reclaiming the spirit and Christian significance of what had become a dead and exclusive ritual in the Church. This prophetic gesture, which declared in loud and clear terms the liberative import of Jesus’ servant leadership and the inclusive vision of the Reign of God, was a momentous event. Though it was not taken up widely by the tradition-minded sections of the universal Church, the evangelical implications of this path-breaking initiative cannot be overlooked.
It is widely acclaimed that Francis’s leadership has brought a new freshness to the way of being church in the world today. The wide reception of his Apostolic Exhortation Evangeli Gaudium and Encyclical Laudato Si, testifies to this fact. In Laudato Si, Francis called for a new relationality with the earth, which becomes possible only by moving away from human greed. Though this poses a tough challenge to the anthropocentric liberal market economy that has become the norm in today’s world, Francis’ call has found a strong echo across the globe. Perhaps what has made this document very appealing to many is the manner in which the Pope has brought out the spiritual dimension underlying ecological concerns.
Another characteristic feature that marks Pope Francis’s papacy is the outflow of mercy that has become a tangible experience through his words and deeds. Francis’ outreach to the poor and the marginalized, particularly the migrants and the refugees, speaks volumes to this effect. The ‘Gospel of Mercy’ is his response to the migrant and refugee crisis. He calls for an integration that will become mutual enrichment, open up positive perspectives to communities, and prevent the danger of discrimination, racism, extreme nationalism or xenophobia. (Message of Pope Francis on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 2016). For him, protecting the world's migrants and refugees is a moral imperative, “a duty towards our brothers and sisters who, for various reasons, have been forced to leave their homeland: a duty of justice, of civility and of solidarity.” (Sixth International Forum on Migration and peace, 2017). These words became flesh as he reached out to the Syrian refugees, and took back with him to Rome 12 Muslims from three Syrian families during his visit to the Greek island of Lesbos. This gesture, though symbolic, communicated to the world a powerful message that the ‘Gospel of Mercy’ should not remain mere words.
Mercy and compassion seeps out of Pope Francis, not just in the texture of his life, but also through the text of Catholic doctrine, which is his distinctive contribution to the present times. This has become most evident in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia through which he invites the Church to make present the compassionate heart of Christ before the many situations that call for healing today.
In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis plainly sets out his moral and pastoral approach -observes Indian moral theologian George Therookattil. This is done in attentiveness to the realities and complexities of life in the concrete, rather than in the abstract. In his opinion, the goal of the Exhortation is to help families—in fact, everyone—experience being touched by an unmerited, unconditional, gratuitous mercy of God and know that they are welcome in the Church. Therefore, it speaks of the pastoral concern to those who are divorced and have entered into new unions, those in mixed marriages, with disparity of cults and to those with homosexual orientation. It is an invitation to mercy and pastoral discernment that asks the Church to meet people where they are, to consider and take into account families and individuals in all their complexity of various situations, and to respect their consciences when it comes to moral decisions. (George Therookattil, “Pope Francis’ Moral and Pastoral Approach in Amoris Laetitia, 2017.)
Even though Pope Francis spoke of the ‘need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the church’ (EG 103), many find him continuing on a conservative note as his predecessors without bringing a radical change on the gender question. All the same, even his critics find his position on clericalism very striking. He has consistently spoken against clericalism, by calling the” the evil of clericalism” as “a mistaken way of living out the ecclesiology proposed by the Second Vatican Council.” Denouncing clericalism, he affirms the role of laity in the Church. In his words: “When that comes – when the ‘Hour of the Laity’ finally strikes – it will mean the prophetic fire has been lit, consigning clericalism to the past where it should belong.” (Letter to the President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, 2016).
Without doubt, in Francis we have a Pope who through his freeing leadership witnesses to the world a new and different way of being Church today. His attempts to give a more human face to the Church in a way that makes the heart of God more tangible, may be disconcerting to many. Yet, the Spirit blows where it wills, and it is undeniable that in the person of Pope Francis, the world encounters the human touch of the Spirit.