Meeting Pope Francis

ROME—When Pope Francis stepped out onto the central loggia of St. Peter’s on the night of March 13, I thought of the man I had met in his Buenos Aires office 10 months before: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., who was looking forward to laying down the burden of leadership and devoting himself to prayer, reflection and study. Now, because Benedict XVI decided to renounce the Chair of Peter and do what Cardinal Bergoglio wanted to do, the old-school Argentine Jesuit is now Benedict’s successor. His acceptance of the cross that is the papacy was an act of humble obedience by a man who had bent his will to the divine will for over a half-century.

What kind of man is he? Some impressions from an hour’s conversation last May:

A man of God. The new pope struck me then as someone who lived from the inside out: a man whose rich interior life was the basis of his public life; a leader whose decisions grew from prayer and discernment, not calculation.

A man of profound humility. I had long been interested in getting to know then-Cardinal Bergoglio, but I had the hardest time getting him to talk about his own life and experiences. I didn’t detect shyness in this, or false modesty, but a true evangelical humility. Pope Francis will not have the effervescence of a John Paul II; but like the Polish pope who created him cardinal, Jorge Bergoglio has spent his life saying, not “Look at me,” but rather, “Look to Jesus Christ.”

A man of keen and realistic intelligence. Pope Francis is not the university professor that John Paul II and Benedict XVI had been in their pre-papal lives. And while that model of preparing-for-the-papacy served the Church well for 35 years, it’s not the only possible model. Now, rather than a professor who learned how to be a pastor, the Church has been given a pastor who has long experience of being a pastor. Nonetheless, I was struck last May by Bergoglio’s sharp mind, his familiarity with issues throughout the world Church, and his prudence in judging people and situations. He was, for example, completely realistic and lucid about the Church’s situation in Latin America. Rather than complaining about evangelical Protestant “sheep-rustling,” as more than a few Latin American churchmen do, the archbishop spoke with insight and conviction about the imperative of Catholicism rediscovering the power of the Gospel through personal conversion to Jesus Christ.

A man of the New Evangelization. The new pope played a significant role in shaping the Latin American bishops’ 2007 “Aparecida Document,” which embraced the New Evangelization and put it at the center of the Church’s life. In our conversation, the man who would become pope made clear his understanding that a kept Church—”kept” in the sense of legal establishment, cultural habit, or both—had no future in the 21st-century West, given the acids of secularism. Pope Francis is a man, I conclude, who intends to go on evangelical offense: it will be all Gospel, all proposal, all evangelism, all the time.

A man of reform. We spoke of the Latin American edition of my book, “The Courage To Be Catholic,” for which he thanked me. And in discussing Vatican affairs, then-Cardinal Bergoglio displayed a shrewd, but not cynical, grasp of just what was wrong with the Church’s central bureaucratic machinery, and why. Thus I think we can expect the new pope to lead the Church in a purification and renewal of the episcopate, the priesthood, the religious life, and the Curia, because he understands that scandal, corruption, and incompetence are impediments to the Gospel-centered mission I describe in Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church (Basic Books).

A man of freedom rightly understood. In addition to Pope Francis’s lifetime commitment to the poor I’d also note his commitment to human rights and democracy, both of which are under severe pressure in Argentina. The new pope knows the fragility of democratic self-governance, and will work to shore up democracy’s eroding moral-cultural foundations throughout the West.

Habemus papam. Thanks be to God.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash