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Pope Francis is carrying forward Benedict XVI’s missionary message

The Pope kisses the feet of residents of a shelter for drug users during his time as Cardinal in Buenos Aire (CNS)

I have just read PopeQuotes for today: it is from Benedict XVI, stating “Every Gospel missionary must always bear in mind this truth: it is the Lord who touches hearts with his Word and with his Spirit, calling people to faith and to communion in the Church.”

I include this quote in this blog to remind myself that, although many people have deplored some of Pope Francis’s off the cuff statements for the confusion they seem to bring in their wake, he is actually taking up his predecessor’s words and carrying them forward in his own pastoral fashion. In his Letter 36 from the Vatican, dated November 18, Robert Moynihan draws attention to this same point, reminding readers that, as a friend put it to him, “almost everyone has overlooked the word which is most important to Pope Francis: conversion.”

The friend went on to say that “what Francis wishes to do, is to accompany people on their walk of faith, meeting them where they are, until they can be brought to that moment when they can freely embrace the teaching of the Church concerning faith and morals. The missing word is conversion…” The word “accompany” especially struck me, as my blog for Monday was about the work of a different kind of “accompagnateur” – not those who, as priests or lay faithful, walk alongside others in their often stumbling journey towards Christ, but those who do the opposite: helping people to commit suicide in the deeply erroneous belief that this is a work of mercy.

Moynihan quotes another post to his Letter 36: Pope Francis wants “for me to be a friend of Christ…so that I then communicate Christ… not to communicate doctrine in the first place. That is why, as much as I loved Pope John Paul II as a father, and as much as I loved Pope Benedict for the depth and clarity of his thinking…Pope Francis in this last year and a half has changed me more, in a more direct way, than either of them.” That is a very challenging statement. When the battle lines are drawn – if they have not been drawn already – between those who want Francis to behave in a traditional way, and those who think he is well on the way to becoming a champion of their own liberal agenda, it is worth asking, how many people in the Church and outside it, have perhaps become new friends of Christ as a result of listening to the Pope?

The Catholic Truth Society, that valiant publishing company which has done so much to propagate the Faith in recent decades, has a fascinating booklet, Interviews with a Future Pope by Gianni Valente, which deserves to be widely read as a way of understanding Pope Francis’s pastoral approach a bit better. Popes, like everyone else, are shaped by their background, their family, their culture and their pastoral experience. St John Paul II was shaped by the clash between truth and the Communist ideology in his native Poland; Pope Benedict by his long years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Reading this booklet it is clear to me that the most formative influence on Pope Francis has been the poverty, material and spiritual, of the ordinary people in his native Buenos Aires.

The question that most preoccupied him during his years as a Jesuit priest and finally as the cardinal archbishop, was how to accompany people along the path of faith in Christ when, struggling to survive in chaos and poverty, they are often far from him? Jesus, the Cardinal believed, is the supreme example of how to walk alongside others. That is why he sent his priests to live and work in the slums, not expecting the poor to come to church at times suited to the clergy in order to hear sermons preached in an unfamiliar environment, but building little chapels in the slums themselves so that the work of sanctification – Mass, baptisms, marriages, funerals, devotional practices, pilgrimages and so on – took place where the poor were living.

In some of the worst parts of the city, as a result of the Cardinal’s initiative, new life has flourished: catechesis for over a thousand children and teenagers, soup kitchens where 800 people can eat daily, educational support for 650 children, drug rehabilitation centres, camps for soccer, music and sewing and spiritual retreats for men and women: “A network of light-hearted and overflowing charity where there is always time to…ask that hope may be ignited in someone who already seems lost…”

In the booklet the future Pope referred to the work of Don Bosco among poor boys in the slums of Turin in the late 19th century. His constant theme was that you cannot “close the doors of the church” against those who are not leading respectable or conventional lives. Catechesis and preparation for the Sacraments are not ignored but emphasis, for the Cardinal, was on the spirit of the law rather than the letter; giving people “the beauty of the Gospel, the astonishment of the encounter with Jesus…and allowing the Holy Spirit to do the rest.”

Pope Francis today would echo his own words when, as Cardinal Archbishop in Argentina, he then told the interviewer: “Our certainties can become a wall, a cell that imprisons the Holy Spirit… Look at our people not as they should be but as they are, and see what is necessary, without predictions and recipes, but with generous openness. God speaks through wounds and frailties…”

Perhaps we need to think more about our own role in the work of evangelisation rather than constantly be on the watch for the times when the Pope seems, in our eyes, to make mistakes and overstep the line?