Francis, Pope from the Americas
By Patrick Novecosky
As Pope Francis celebrates World Youth Day in Brazil this week, here's a profile from our Summer issue to provide a preview of and context for the visit. Find links for following the Pope at World Youth Day at the bottom of the page.
The rush to embrace the new pope is on! Before Pope Francis could even celebrate his first month as the Roman Pontiff, several major publishers already had biographies of the former Argentinean cardinal on the shelves. And before his election to the Throne of Peter was even 24 hours old, I noticed that shops outside the Vatican were already pedaling Pope Francis buttons, key chains, and posters.
Above and beyond that, the 266th Roman pontiff has garnered generally positive press attention from conservatives and liberals—from both secular and Catholic media. It may be just a “honeymoon” period, but for now Pope Francis is feeling the love.
Keeping it simple
If there is one immediate impression the new pope has made, it’s his emphasis on the poor and dispossessed. Just a few days after his election, he held a special audience at the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall for the more than 5,000 journalists from around the world who were in Rome to cover the conclave. In his address to us, Pope Francis explained his reason for choosing the humble saint from Assisi as his papal patron.
During that March 16 audience, he said that late in the voting during the conclave, he was sitting next to his friend, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy.
“When things were getting a little ‘dangerous,’ he comforted me,” the pope told journalists. “And then, when the votes reached the two-thirds, there was the usual applause because the pope had been elected. He hugged me and said: ‘Do not forget the poor.’ And that word stuck here [tapping his forehead]; the poor, the poor.
“Then, immediately in relation to the poor I thought of Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and safeguards creation. In this moment when our relationship with creation is not so good—right?—he is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man. Oh, how I wish for a Church that is poor and for the poor!”
The Holy Father has certainly been a man of his word. Before he even stepped out onto the loggia on his election day, he eschewed the gold pectoral cross reserved for the newly elected pope and instead opted to wear his own simple silver cross depicting the Holy Spirit descending upon the Good Shepherd returning with a lost sheep.
Pope Francis also did away with the papal tradition of wearing white slacks and red shoes under his white cassock. And he put the ornate papal thrones in storage, preferring to sit on a regular white chair at ground level. Previous popes have had their perch elevated.
More noticeably, on his first full day as pontiff, the newly elected pope returned to the hotel where he had stayed prior to the conclave. He cleared out his room, carried his own suitcase, and then paid the bill himself. In keeping with his motif of simplicity, Pope Francis also decided not to move into the spacious papal apartments. Instead, he is living at Casa Santa Marta, the residence behind St. Peter’s Basilica where he and the voting cardinals stayed during the conclave.
Matthew Bunson, who penned the best-selling biography Pope Francis (Our Sunday Visitor), told me that right out of the gate the new Holy Father won the hearts of millions around the world.
“His pontificate so far has been full of powerful gestures of humility and service,” he explained. “I expect that they will be matched by his teachings on mercy, forgiveness, and the embrace of the authentic Christian life—something he has been talking about for years in his homilies and writings.”
The image of Francis’ pontificate, Bunson said, was set on his inauguration day—March 19—when he told his driver to stop the popemobile. The pope got out and kissed and embraced a profoundly handicapped man. Similarly, on Easter Sunday, he instructed his security detail to bring him eight-year-old Dominic Gondreau, a Rhode Island boy with severe cerebral palsy. The pope embraced the child, bringing tears to the eyes of his parents and millions who saw the embrace on television and the Internet.
“He is teaching us that [the faith] has to be more than just a gesture,” Bunson said. “It has to come from somewhere, and it’s coming from his love for Jesus Christ. Like Pope Benedict before him, Pope Francis is teaching us and showing us that everything has to flow from caritas, from charity, from love—otherwise we are nothing more than NGOs [non-governmental organizations].”
Francis the reformer
The buzz throughout Rome during the conclave was that the new pope, whoever he happened to be, would need to be a dynamic personality who could teach and explain the Faith to a generation virtually swallowed up by a secular culture. The new pope’s second—and concurrent task—would be to reform the governance of the Church: Vatican City State and the Roman curia, which has for years been plagued by mismanagement and scandal.
The fact that the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose Francis of Assisi as his patron is not lost on those anxious for curial reform.
The great saint, who died in 1226, once entered the church of San Damiano, which was threatening to collapse because of extreme age. As Francis prayed, he heard a voice coming from the cross telling him three times: “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”
Pope Francis’ house isn’t ready to collapse, but it’s certainly in need of serious renovation—something far beyond the scope of any reality television show. His first move in this regard came three days after his election when he provisionally renewed the appointments of leaders in the Roman curia. (The authority of all top curia officials lapses when the Seat of Peter becomes vacant.) Ordinarily a new pontiff quickly renews the appointments of those officials. But Pope Francis waited a few days before announcing that all Vatican officials should remain at their posts donec aliter provideatur—until other provisions are made.
“The task of reforming the curia and the governance of the Vatican City State is one of the big tasks given to him by the College of Cardinals,” Bunson said. “Structure-wide reform is coming. I think we could see some consolidating of Vatican departments to make things more efficient, but the pope’s most important and telling task will be the appointment of his Secretary of State.”
Even though the tasks before him seem monumental, Vatican watchers are confident that this new pope from the Americas is the right man for the job. After all, he has shown that much is accomplished by relying on God rather than men. His method of sticking to the simple gospel message has already drawn many inactive Catholics back to the Church. I’ve even heard Protestant Christians refer to him as “our pope.” It’s rather ironic that in culture of rampant materialism, Pope Francis has found a winning formula by drawing on the saint of poverty and simplicity. It will serve him well in the years ahead.
Follow Pope Francis as he returns to the Americas for World Youth Day -- Pope Francis has even granted an indulgence for following and spiritually uniting to the events in Rio.
- Read articles, stream live video and more at the U.S. Bishops' World Youth Day site.
- Download texts, photos and video at the Vatican site.