Five big surprises from Francis’s papacy

Pope Francis holds a baby as he visits the neonatal unit at San Giovanni Hospital in Rome on September 16, 2016 (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, handout)

How to mark the fifth anniversary of a pontificate that is a high-octane news generator, where hardly a fortnight goes by without an unexpected turn of events? Perhaps it’s instructive to go back to March 2013, and see how the surprises came early. Herewith five surprises on the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis.

The media interviews

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires kept the media at a distance, confessing that “interviews are not my forte”. Yet there he was three days after his election at the customary meeting of a new pope with the news media, and he was clearly at ease. He spoke animatedly and, in an early sign of what was to come later, departed freely from his text. It was an almost instantaneous transformation. Far from keeping his distance, Francis has employed media interviews as his principal method of addressing his flock and the world. In the summer of 2013, his first encyclical was released – Lumen Fidei – a joint effort with Benedict XVI. It was never to be spoken of again. The real teaching in 2013 was from the papal plane – “Who am I to judge?” – and in a long interview with Fr Antonio Spadaro. And it has been that way ever since.

A poor Church

It was in the meeting with journalists where the Holy Father explained why he chose the name “Francis”, in honour of il Poverello: “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!” He indicated that he would not only preach about the Christian obligation toward the poor, but would live it, seeking out the poor and suffering, both in Rome and abroad. It would become the most admirable part of his pontificate. This was not a departure from his practice in Buenos Aires, but an extension of it.

The surprise was that Francis would not only bring his experience as a “bishop of the slums” to Rome, but also the impact of his only significant experience outside his native Argentina, his time in Germany. The pope from the poor and for the poor is also the pope, as it were, of the German Church, whether it be advancing the “Kasper proposal” on divorce and remarriage, or rewarding them for their recalcitrance on liturgical translations. The pope is for the poor and with the poor, but the pontificate follows the agenda of the bishops who are rich and have the preoccupations of the rich.

The Jesuits

Before being poor or rich, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is above all a Jesuit of 60 years in the Society. The day after his election he called the general curia of the Jesuits in Rome and asked a flummoxed receptionist whether he could speak to the Father General. But it was not how he called the Jesuits that was startling, but that he called at all. So divisive was Fr Bergoglio in Argentina while provincial that after his term the Jesuits tried to get rid of him, first in external exile (Germany) and then internal (Córdoba).

After he was made a bishop, he was not welcome in Jesuit houses in Argentina and did not visit the generalate when in Rome. From 1992 until the day after his election as pope, Francis lived an estrangement from his own religious family. That he would now lavish attention upon them, meeting them regularly in Rome and on his foreign visits is a true surprise. And about the Jesuits never is heard a discouraging word. While the Holy Father speaks in withering tones about all kinds of priests, he reserves for his fellow Jesuits only fraternal affirmations.


In his inaugural homily on March 19, Pope Francis declared: “We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!” He would echo that in Evangelii Gaudium, where he would define the Incarnation as “revolution of tenderness” (88). The famously sour-looking bishop in Buenos Aires now visibly delights in children, in the elderly and in the sick, whom he embraces with tenderness. Yet no pope – or even bishop – so frequently condemns with harsh judgments those he finds lacking, in the Church and in the world. Public humiliations of his most senior collaborators in the Roman Curia are now a pattern.

Diplomats over doctrine

Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga revealed that within days of his election, the Holy Father had decided to appoint Pietro Parolin, a veteran papal diplomat, as his new Secretary of State. Another early decision was remove Cardinal Mauro Piacenza from the Congregation for the Clergy in favour of the head of the Vatican’s academy for priest diplomats, Beniamino Stella. In the traditional Vatican balance between doctrine and diplomacy, the former – personified by Cardinal Gerhard Müller – have been utterly routed.

In the face of the crisis in Ireland, Pope Benedict XVI appointed his trustworthy aide at the CDF, Charles Brown, as nuncio in Dublin. The diplomatic corps did not care for such a prestigious post being given to an outsider, and when his five years were up last year, Pope Francis sent him to Albania. The diplomats are in charge.

A pope from the peripheries has become the great champion of the diplomatic corps. Surprises never cease.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the March 16 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here