Pope Francis at 80

Thomas Worcester, SJ

Pope Francis at 80

Pope Francis turns 80 on December 17th. Elected less than four years ago at the age of 76, he continues to exhibit an amazing degree of energy and zeal. It is reasonable to suppose that he could well serve another five years or so as bishop of Rome before stepping down. For Americans, and indeed for many others, a question that arises in the wake of the US election is how Pope Francis may offer a model of leadership that is different from what we usually see from US presidents. With this question in the background, I recall here some of what we have seen so far from Pope Francis.

Other popes had visited the US, but none had addressed Congress. Speaking slowly and distinctly, in English, Pope Francis stood before the assembled lawmakers in September 2015 and singled out four Americans as especially exemplary: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. Lincoln and King stand out for their efforts to end injustices grounded in racism; they suffered martyrdom for their work. Not long before his trip to the US, Pope Francis had beatified Oscar Romero, the El Salvador bishop assassinated for his defense of the poor against the violence and predation of the greedy rich. In speaking to the US Congress, Pope Francis also made clear that a pro-life agenda is not solely concerned with abortion; the example of a pro-life issue he highlighted was the urgent need for a global abolition of the death penalty. And in praising Merton and Day, Francis lauded two articulate, prophetic voices for an end to war everywhere.

Eschewing narrow national and institutional interests, Pope Francis has again and again promoted international cooperation between peoples, better relations among diverse Christians, and inter-religious dialogue that can overcome hatred between Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others. No matter how discouraging the daily onslaught of news of violence may be, Francis does not give up, but rather he re-doubles his efforts for reconciliation and peace.

Accepting and endorsing the scientific consensus on climate change and related environmental questions, Pope Francis published an encyclical entitled Laudato si', a document that applies the moral principles of Catholic Social Teaching to the matter of human agency in environmental degradation. Francis shows how it is the poor that suffer the most from environmental damage, while the rich insulate themselves from having to acknowledge or in any way change their wasteful, destructive ways. Catholic Social Teaching stresses the common good and what must be done to foster it, a theme to which Francis returns constantly. He sees individual greed--in traditional Catholic teaching a deadly sin--as the enemy of the common good and as central to environmental destruction. Appealing for local, national, international collaboration to stop global warming and other damage, Francis places solidarity in care for the earth, our common home, far above private interests and profits.

In 1980, Jesuit superior general Pedro Arrupe created the Jesuit Refugee Service, an international organization sponsored by the Society of Jesus and devoted to providing various kinds of assistance and support to refugees. Pope Francis, himself a Jesuit, has been relentless in speaking out in defense of refugees and migrants, against those that use them as scapegoats for unemployment and crime, and against those that slander them for the sake of political or other personal gain. For Pope Francis, the poor are Christ among us, the Jesus for whom there was no room in Bethlehem, and who was taken as a refugee into Egypt to flee the murderous designs of the power-hungry King Herod.

Mercy is the dominant theme of the current papacy. Francis is tireless in exhorting priests to get out of their comfort zones, and to minister up close to the people, listening to them in person, while literally getting their own shoes dirty in poorer neighborhoods, as their hearts are transformed from cold and distant to warm and loving. Priests are to listen to the very human stories of broken marriages and bring discernment to bear on such matters, rather than merely repeat rules that may not fit the concrete and messy situations of actual people.

The job description of a pope also includes internal administration of the Catholic Church, starting with the Vatican offices and officials known as the Roman Curia, along with appointment of cardinals and bishops around the world. In a talk to the Curia in 2014 Francis seemed especially eager for major reform of both persons and institutions, but some commentators have noted the continuing slow pace of any actual reform. Still, the cardinals Francis has named have been a strong indication of a new way of doing things. No longer are holders of large, wealthy archdioceses more-or-less automatically made cardinals, but they are often passed over in favor of bishops from relatively obscure, poor dioceses, at the ends of the earth. In naming bishops, Francis does not hesitate to choose those that make care for the poor, the migrants and the refugees, the outcasts and the discarded, their priority. Pope Francis surely has both supporters and critics, some of the latter rather harsh, in the Curia and among the bishops and cardinals in various countries. But he has avoided a vindictive agenda, and seeks dialogue and consensus whenever possible.

In the US, some persons have been disappointed by the slow pace of change regarding the roles of women in the Church. Defenders of Francis in this regard point to his amicable resolution of an investigation of nuns that had been initiated by his predecessor, and to his appointment of a commission to study the historical precedents for women deacons.

Pope Francis exudes a humility that surely eludes most presidents or any persons in executive positions. He literally gets down on his knees and washes the feet of prisoners and marginalized persons, of both genders and of various religions. When in 2013 he was asked who he really is, he responded saying that he is sinner. He illustrated his point by recalling serious mistakes he had made in an earlier period of his life, in Argentina, when he had acted not so much with authority as with an authoritarian rigidity. As Pope Francis celebrates his eightieth birthday, he surely continues to hold an admiring attention from a large part of the globe, especially from persons looking for a model of leadership that is not bound to arrogance and wealth.