I’ll be honest. It took me a while to warm to Pope Francis. I was a great fan of Benedict; I loved his scholarly precision and well-constructed arguments, his weighing of words and his attention to detail, and his liturgical conservatism. As well as all that, he was the Pope when I was received into the church. He was the embodiment of that sense of authority, constancy and continuity that so attracted me. He was the right-hand man of John Paul the Great, that towering public personality of the late twentieth century, who took on the Evil Empire and won.
Francis is cut from a different cloth.
He doesn’t have Benedict’s academic background and invariably careful approach. He tends to speak off-the-cuff, and this spontaneity can cause problems. One of the first times he made big news as Pope was in July 2013, when he said “who am I to judge?” as part of his response to a question about Church teaching on gay rights, during an informal mid-air press conference.
I sometimes find it frustrating that he has been reluctant to set out and explain a clear position on several controversies of his pontificate, notably the reception of Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics.
Francis is widely suspected of supporting the “liberal” view on this issue, i.e. that there should not be a blanket prohibition on taking Communion for those who have been divorced and remarried, but his reluctance to commit himself has led to frustration in some quarters. This was manifested in the dubia sent to the Holy Father in 2016 by four cardinals seeking clarity on the papal exhortation Amoris laetitia. I also remain puzzled by the theological basis of the changes made in 2018 to the Catechism’s statements on the death penalty.
All that said, I have become considerably more relaxed about Francis in recent years. Partly this is reminding myself of the fact that he is the Pope and I am just an ordinary layman, with no special theological expertise. I owe him my obedience, and the benefit of the doubt. But as well as that, I have come to realise that he has particular gifts that are good for the Church and for Catholics. A friend put it this way: “John Paul II reminded us what we believe; Benedict told us why; Francis insists that we put it into action”. This is obviously a massive oversimplification but it does touch on an important theme of Francis’ pontificate, that we need to be a Church that is down-to-earth and practical, engaged with the struggles and dramas of everyday life.
He encouraged women to breastfeed if necessary during a long Mass in the Sistine Chapel, and organised a lunch for prisoners in a large basilica in Bologna, San Petronio. Soon after taking the throne of St Peter, he said he wanted us to be “a poor church for the poor”. Shortly after that, with his remarkable gift for the striking figure of speech, he said he wanted “shepherds who smell of the sheep”, that is to say priests who were close to the people they served. He has popularised the idea of the church as a “field hospital”, the place where wounded people are treated after a battle: “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.”
Francis appears to be a people person, after the manner of John Paul II. He laughs readily. More than once his addresses have been interrupted by small children running amok and he has taken it in his stride beautifully. On one occasion in 2018, a child with learning disabilities ran on stage at a General Audience and the Holy Father reacted by saying that we should all be as “free as little children”. Several times he has publicly embraced people with serious facial disfigurements.
An important theme of his homilies and reflections is the danger of small and unspectacular sins; gossip is a frequent target, as is the danger of cliques and clericalism. In some ways it is much more important and necessary to preach against those things than against the obvious and prominent sins. “Small” sins are harder to root out because they seem so small & normal.
So yes: I learned to (mostly) stop worrying and love Francis. I think it’s probably good for us to have a Pope who keeps us on our toes and makes us uncomfortable and has a different style than we’re used to. Complacency is the Christian’s great enemy.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.