Monday, March 13 marked the 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’ Pontificate. Being the leader of over a billion Catholics is consequential no matter who the person is. Yet his reign as Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church has been categorized by many as being different in style to his recent predecessors. This should come as no surprise because Pope Francis’ religious and spiritual life was largely formed by his membership in the Society of Jesus. Having been formed by Ignatian Spirituality and Jesuit Pedagogy over many decades in South America, Pope Francis engages the questions before the Church in a very Ignatian manner. Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis is the first Jesuit to be elected pope and the first to take the name Francis. He is also the first man from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first man elected pope from a non-European country since the eighth century papacy of Syrian Pope Gregory III. By any standard Cardinal Bergoglio’s election to lead the Church as Pope Francis was remarkable.
When asked early in his pontificate what it means for a Jesuit to be Bishop of Rome his response was very Jesuitical. “Discernment” he said. For Jesuits, the art and practice of discernment is an instrument that helps the individual know the Lord more profoundly and follow him more closely in order to hear what God has to say from God’s perspective.1 Pope Francis’ ability to discern the signs of the times has brought him into conversations with various contingencies within (and outside) the Church regarding issues like the environment, the role of women in leadership or liturgical roles, and the way the Church cares for Catholic members of the LGBTQ community.
His three encyclicals, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), Laudato Si (On Care for Our Common Home), and Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship) remain important documents for our times - clarifying Catholic thought on the role of individual and communal faith, the Christian obligation to care for the earth and the poor, and renewed focus on deepening relationships for the common good and calls for an end to war and the death penalty. These documents will surely be touchstones for the Church, and all people of goodwill, as humanity continues to grapple with the systemic issues that allow injustice, bias and prejudice to reside in our hearts and souls.
Recently, Pope Francis conveyed The Synod on Synodality in which he invites the whole of the Church to journey and reflect together over the course of three years in order to “learn through Her experience which processes can help Her to live communion, to achieve participation, to open Herself to mission.” Each national or regional synod is presently collecting raw data on the experiences of the Catholics in each diocese or region in order to discern more profoundly how the gifts of renewal given during Vatican II can continue to blossom for the third millennium.
Pope Francis sees himself as the shepherd of this flock we call Church. His pontificate has been marked by simplicity and humility, living not in the Papal Apartments but rather in three modest rooms at the Vatican boarding house called the Casa Santa Martha. He refuses to use limousines and still wears simple items of clothing. Many call him the “Joyful Pope” as he can be seen at his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square smiling and embracing everyone from babies to aging nuns and the infirmed. On Holy Thursday he washes and kisses the feet of local prisoners instead of the pastors of Rome and has set up places within the Vatican where those in need of food and shelter are welcome.
“I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.”2
Patrick Rogers, S.J.
Vice President for Mission Integration
1&2 August 2013 interview with Pope Francis by Father Antonio Spadaro