Pope Francis, the Charismatic Liberationist

While the Argentine pontiff weighs in on diverse issues in his groundbreaking interview, he clearly emerges as a pastor who is profoundly influenced by what have been two competing tendencies in the Latin American church.
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Pope Francis is a Charismatic Liberationist. While the Argentine pontiff weighs in on diverse issues in his groundbreaking interview, he clearly emerges as a pastor who is profoundly influenced by what have been two competing tendencies in the Latin American church. In his native Argentina Francis was not a follower of Liberation Theology, which calls for the Church to adopt a preferential option for the poor and strive to build the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. However, in his first six months as pope, he has adopted liberationist discourse in his condemnations of what he regards as an exploitative global economic system that worships "the God of money."

His liberationist colors are most apparent in the interview in his conceptualization of the church as "the people of God," a phrase he utters eight times during the interview. "The image of the church I like is that of the holy, faithful people of God. This is the definition I often use, and then there is that image from the Second Vatican Council's 'Dogmatic Constitution on the Church." Developed at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and championed by Latin American and other Catholic liberationists, the idea is that the Church is first and foremost a community of Christian brethren. The church as ecclesial institution governed by a clerical hierarchy is not jettisoned but becomes secondary. Such definition of the church necessarily leads to a focus on the Global South, where some 70 percent of the Catholic "people of God" live.

Another significant liberationist reference is the Magnificat. Francis states, "Mary loved Jesus with the heart of the people, as we read in the Magnificat." One of the most popular biblical passages among liberationists, also known as the Song of Mary, it exalts the humble and rebukes the powerful.

He hath shewed might in his arm:
he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

While Francis' liberationist bent has been featured in the secular media, his Charismatic tendency has been largely absent. His impromptu exorcism of a Mexican parishioner, which I wrote about recently in a Huffington Post piece, and his recent laudatory remarks about the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, have received precious little attention from the mainstream press. Completely overshadowed by his comments on gay Catholics, the pope said this of the Charismatic Renewal on the flight back to Rome from Rio,

I'll tell you something about the Charismatic Movement ... at the end of the '70s and in the '80s, I wasn't a big fan. I used to say they confused the holy liturgy with a school of samba. I was converted when I got to know them better and saw the good they do. In this moment of the life of the church, the movements are necessary. They're a grace of the Spirit, and in general, they do much good for the church. The charismatic renewal movement isn't just about winning back a few Pentecostals, but it serves the church and its renewal.

Francis charismatic influence is even more apparent than his liberationist bent in the interview. Charismatics and Pentecostals place great emphasis on the "Gifts of the Spirit," of which one is discernment. "My choices, including those related to the day-to-day aspects of life, like the use of a modest car, are related to a spiritual discernment that responds to a need that arises from looking at things, at people and from reading the signs of the times. Discernment in the Lord guides me in my way of governing." That he uses the word 21 times during the course of his interview is testament to the paramountcy of "discernment" in his mission.

Evangelizing to people on the basis of their poverty-related afflictions, or "pathogens of poverty," has been the crux of Charismatic and Pentecostal missionary efforts. If millions of Catholics have left the Church in Latin America over the past decades, it's primarily due to the tremendous Pentecostal emphasis on faith healing, that the Holy Spirit imbues believers with the power to cope with if not overcome their poverty-related trials and tribulations. Thus Francis' call for the Church to a "field hospital after battle" is adopted from Charismatics and Pentecostals who go so far in some churches in Latin America as to have ushers dressed in white nurse uniforms and pastors in doctors' smocks! And the trenches in which the pope calls upon the church to enter are the street corners of the world where Pentecostals haven been evangelizing from their inception and where Charismatics have been Catholic pioneers in preaching the Word in public. "We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner," says Francis the Evangelist.

In short, Francis' groundbreaking interview reveals, among many other things, the further development of what was apparent to me in Rio de Janeiro at World Youth Day. He is developing a powerful synthesis of what had been two competing theological tendencies in Latin America, Liberation Theology and the Charismatic Renewal. Francis is opting for both the poor and the Spirit.

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