As soon as his name was announced from the Vatican on March 13, the world scrambled to learn about Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, the Argentine Jesuit just elected the next Vicar of Christ.
Much has been said in the ensuing weeks about his humility, his simple lifestyle, and his evident love for the poor—and there’s been much speculation about what his priorities for the Church will be.
Rather than guessing, perhaps we can best begin to know the new Holy Father by allowing him to reveal himself in his own words and actions. His simple homilies often employ the Jesuit technique of focusing on three “words” or ideas, and in his teaching so far, three “words” stand out.
Wasn’t it striking that the first thing he did after greeting all of the faithful on the Loggia was to ask everyone to pray for him?
Striking, but not surprising. Like his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who never gave a homily without urging people to pray for him, Pope Francis genuinely relies on prayer. As Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, when public morality was under attack, he wrote to Carmelite nuns begging for their intercession, confident that prayer would carry the day.
Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna recently told an interviewer that Pope Francis rises very early in the morning in order to have two hours of quiet prayer time before he begins his day.
In his first weeks as pontiff, Francis found occasion to preach the mercy of God almost every day. In his homily at St. Anna’s parish in Rome the Sunday after his election, the Holy Father took mercy as his theme, telling the flock, “I think—and I say it with humility—that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy.”
A pastor present told Vatican Radio what the Holy Father said during lunch to the priests serving in the poorest neighborhoods of Rome. He encouraged them to spend a lot of time in the confessional, offering people God’s mercy: “If you keep the light on in the confessional and are available, you will see what kind of line there is for confession.”
Pope Francis has repeatedly asked the faithful to throw themselves on God’s mercy no matter how many times we fall into sin, and also to extend this mercy to others. He wants us to forgive wrongdoing, and also to abstain from gossip, unmerciful speech that shames people. The Lord gives us the opposite example—refusing to shame even manifest sinners who repented.
The pope speaks not so much as an “expert,” but as a witness. He closed his Mercy Sunday homily by saying, “In my own life, I have so often seen God’s merciful countenance, his patience; I have also seen so many people find the courage to enter the wounds of Jesus by saying to him: ‘Lord, I am here, accept my poverty, hide my sin in your wounds, wash it away with your blood.’ And I have always seen that God did just this – he accepted them, consoled them, cleansed them, loved them.”
Witnessing to others is the third vital word. At Mass with his cardinals after his election, he told them that a Church that isn’t actively professing Christ is going backwards. “We can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO [non-governmental organization], but not the Church, the Bride of Christ.”
At his Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, Pope Francis told priests that it isn’t possible to experience true joy in Christ without making acts of faith, getting over the fear of making mistakes, and allowing the Holy Spirit some “room” to work through us. “It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord: self-help courses can be useful in life, but to live our priestly life going from one course to another, from one method to another, leads us to become pelagians and to minimize the power of grace, which comes alive and flourishes to the extent that we, in faith, go out and give ourselves and the gospel to others, giving what little ointment we have to those who have nothing, nothing at all.”
Lest we think that message is just for priests, he said virtually the same thing to the laity at his first General Audience the week before. Love and self-giving are what bring life, he taught, and following Christ necessarily means “going outside” to join Christ in finding the lost sheep.
The pope also anticipates our excuses. “Some might say to me, ‘But, Father, I have no time,’ ‘I have so many things to do,’ ‘It is too difficult,’ ‘What can I do with my little strength, with my sin, with so many things?’”
And he refutes them: “Often we settle for a few prayers, a distracted and inconsistent presence at Sunday Mass, a random act of charity, but we lack this courage to “step outside” to bring Christ. We are a bit like St. Peter. As soon as Jesus speaks of his passion, death, and resurrection, of self-giving, of love for all, the apostle takes him aside and rebukes him.”
Don’t be afraid, says Pope Francis. We are small, we are weak, we are sinful—but God is merciful, and if we share our life in him with others, he is the one who will act. “Always step outside yourself…with the love and tenderness of God, with respect and patience, knowing that we [use] our hands, our feet, our hearts, but then it is God who guides them and makes all our actions fruitful.”
Prayer. Mercy. Witness. That appears to be our new pope’s program.