Pope Francis, Year Four

Pope Francis greets the crowd during his weekly general audience at St Peter's square on March 2, 2016 at the Vatican.   AFP
Pope Francis greets the crowd during his weekly general audience at St Peter's square on March 2, 2016 at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO / AFP / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)

On March 13th, Pope Francis begins his fourth year as bishop of Rome, and pastor to the world. His first three years have been riveting in many ways, drawing an exceptional amount of attention, even for a media-saturated age. By word and example, he preaches a gospel that remains close to the teaching of Jesus himself. His is not a papacy of privilege and prerogative and pomposity, but one of prophetic defense of the poor, the marginalized, the weak, the sick, the imperfect, the broken and the discarded, against economic and political systems that treat them as lazy and as losers worthy of contempt and punishment. With at least one presidential candidate in the U.S. flaunting his abundant wealth, shouting about the need for torture and an end to human rights, and talking down to Pope Francis, the coarseness and hatefulness of hostility to an eloquent voice for the poor is on display.

Many Catholics and others across the globe follow closely what Pope Francis says and does. He draws large crowds when he travels both to centers of power such as the White House in Washington, as well as to relatively marginal places. In centuries past persons permitted to actually meet the pope were expected to genuflect and kiss his feet. Now we see roles reversed, when it is the pope, the vicar of Christ, who kneels to wash and kiss the feet of the imprisoned and of the poor. In centuries past the death penalty was imposed even in the Papal States; but since at least the papacy of Blessed Paul VI, and that of Saint John Paul II, popes have called for mercy and rehabilitation for even the most heinous criminals. The Church today teaches that their dignity as human beings, and their call to discipleship of Christ, remains intact no matter what wrong they may have done. In his address to Congress, Pope Francis brought up the topic of defense of human life, and focused on the need to abolish the death penalty everywhere. The Church's teaching on the death penalty has developed in a direction that excludes it in every case. Those that say that Church teaching cannot change do not know much about history.

The kinds of people beatified or canonized may also change. Though Bishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in 1980 while presiding at Mass, his cause for beatification was delayed for decades by apologists for right-wing violence in El Salvador. But near the end of Benedict XVI's papacy, and decisively with Pope Francis, delays came to an end: Pope Francis declared Romero a martyr and made his courageous service of the poor, and his voice for the poor, an example for others to follow. Standing up for the oppressed and the marginalized, the refugee and the migrant, is not one thing among many others for Pope Francis: they are at the very heart of a Christian vocation.

The Pope's encyclical on the environment (Laudato si') has an abundance of footnotes, notes that have probably not been read by many, even among those that think that they have given the document careful attention. Yet one of the most interesting things about the encyclical is how it is grounded not only in the teaching of earlier popes and councils, but in the recent teachings of episcopal conferences around the world, in Latin America, in Asia, in New Zealand, as well in Europe or North America. An encyclical is a teaching document published by a pope; Francis makes clear that he also teaches in a collegial way, a way that is not merely his quirky, personal opinions, to take or leave according to one's one whim. Laudato si' is official Catholic teaching as much as any encyclical ever is. It also invites dialogue, especially on the practical details of how to stop climate change and to preserve the natural environment.

Opposition to this encyclical was not long in coming, especially from vested interests that could see their accumulation of extravagant wealth endangered by national laws or international agreements aimed at reducing dependence on fossil fuels and other key factors in environmental degradation. Pope Francis demonstrates how it is the poor, and poorer parts of the planet, that suffer the most from such degradation. Some claim that Pope Francis and the Catholic Church "fail" business people, but is it not instead certain business people that fail to acknowledge the truth and justice of the Church's social teaching? Like other prophetic voices, Pope Francis often calls his hearers to repentance and radical conversion. He sometimes sounds like a Lenten preacher, even when it is not the season, such as when his "Christmas greetings" to the Roman curia, in December 2014, echoed John the Baptist in the desert issuing a clarion call to a dramatic reformation of life. But such appeals are above all a call to a new life of grace and mercy, and to a deepened, humble discipleship of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

In both autumn 2014 and autumn 2015 bishops met in synod in Rome to discuss and debate pastoral care of the family. Pope Francis set the topic, but he elicited free-ranging debate and prayerful discernment on some of the most difficult issues where merciful pastoral care is challenged by those seeking to uphold what they claim are unchanging and unchangeable laws, rules, norms. For rigorists, adherence to the letter of the law trumps all other considerations, no matter the catastrophic consequences of such severity. Like seventeenth-century Jansenists, they do not trust Jesuits, seeing them as soft on sin and overly optimistic about human nature. But Francis, the Jesuit pope, in his homily for the closure of the October 2015 synod, affirmed that the true defenders of doctrine uphold not its letter but its spirit: they place people above ideas, and God's mercy above condemnations. For Pope Francis, who calls himself a sinner, mercy is not merely the theme of a special year; it is the perennial heart of what is divine and most fully human.