This week marks the seventh anniversary of the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis on 13th March 2013. Though a work of fiction, the recent success of the film ‘The Two Popes’ has revived public interest in the context of Francis’ election, his cultural background in South America and the factors that shaped the key themes of his pontificate. In August 2018, he became only the second pope to visit Ireland for the World Meeting of Families. Here I explore five foundational themes of his leadership of the Church that have defined his pontificate and that he shared with us in Ireland that summer.
On 26th August 2018, before he departed, Pope Francis spoke to the Irish Bishops and through them to all the people of Ireland. He said:
‘I am close to you: keep moving ahead with courage. The light of faith will show the way to the renewal of the Christian life in Ireland in the years ahead’.
With these words, the Pope was leaving us a foundation on which to build renewal for the Irish Church in the future – upon the bedrock of faith. We remember that the Pope’s first encyclical Lumen fidei was on this theme of faith in which he sought to strengthen and encourage the faith of all believers. Faith is what makes us Christian. It is the glue that keeps the Church together as a ‘family of families’. It is what we assume to be already there in all aspects of Church life, be it prayer, sacraments, missionary initiatives or charitable events. But this is the faith that can’t be taken for granted anymore. In the sceptical world in which we live that questions everything and is less comfortable with certainties, we cannot be complacent that Christian faith is a given - especially at a time when it is not supported by popular culture as it was before. As he Pope Francis insisted in Christus Vivit – the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation dedicated to Young People and to the entire People of God - Christian faith needs to be rooted in deeper soil and in a culture and community that supports it. Faith is a gift that is given not for ourselves but to be shared. It is a way of seeing things and takes us right back to basics where we acknowledge a God who knows and loves us and invites us to love and serve.
So as we listen to Pope Francis on the importance of the gift of faith, we treasure that gift that underpins everything else in the Church. In the face of many sources of ridicule, we continue to insist that faith is a reasonable option and interpretative lens for our existence. Faith in a Creator and loving God is not irrational or superstitious but is based on our experience of what we observe in the world and how we interpret a world that does not explain itself. Yet, faith as we know is a gift from God, an infused virtue that we can’t arrive at on our own. And so at a time when others cast doubt on the Church’s credibility, we make these words from the Gospel our own: ‘Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief!’ (Mark 9:24). May our faith in Lord not grow stale or diminish but be fanned by the Spirit into a flame that becomes the source of newness, light and strength for the Irish Church at this time.
Pope Francis’ ministry as shepherd of the universal Church has been marked by the need to acknowledge wrongs of the past and to offer healing and forgiveness. These wrongs include the terrible wound of clerical sexual abuse.
As Pope Francis drew thousands to the Phoenix Park on the last day of his visit to Ireland, hundreds more gathered in the city centre for a protest. Among them were people and their families who have been hurt by Church personnel. Their hurt was and continues to be real. This hurt was acknowledged by Pope Francis himself who asked for forgiveness for past sins and prayed for healing and repentance. It truly was a poignant moment at the Closing Mass in the Phoenix Park on 26th August when the Pope lead us in the carefully worded Penitential Rite that named those specific examples of hurt and betrayal. Around that time, more hurt was uncovered caused by historical abuse in places like America, Chile and Germany. I believe it was a good thing for us as Church to see this hurt out in the open and expressed - to acknowledge it and see the ongoing need for healing. It keeps us grounded, humble and yet strong in our resolve to work for healing and reconciliation. It spurs us on to show the true face of Christ to those who long to see it. Seeing and listening to the wounded reminded us that they will help the Church to renew itself and start over. Our mission today continues to be the work of healing and re-building trust. While acknowledging past wrongs and probing their causes, we believe that we still can treasure all that is good, true and beautiful about the Christian faith and help people explore its power that St Patrick referred to as ‘this great and salutary gift’ (Confessio, 36).
One of the main themes of Francis’s pontificate has been that of the family. He presided over two synods in Rome on the family and surrounding pastoral issues – the first in October 2014 and the second in October 2015. Then followed the post-synodal apostolic exhortation ‘Amoris Laetitia…The Joy of Love’ which was released on 8th April 2016. This document continues to be a rich source of teaching that he draws from during his pastoral visits around the world. His visit to Ireland was for the World Meeting of Families. He was here to deliver a message that Christian families are a joy for the world and the bedrock of any society. His message was not one of ‘this is how you should be’ but one of supportive encouragement towards an ideal that is worth striving for. In ‘The Joy of Love’, he said that ‘families are not a problem; they are first and foremost an opportunity’. During his homily at the closing Mass in the Phoenix Park, Pope Francis said that “each new day in the life of our families, and each new generation, brings the promise of a new Pentecost, a domestic Pentecost, a fresh outpouring of the Spirit, the Paraclete, whom Jesus sends as our Advocate, our Consoler and indeed our Encourager.
How much our world needs this encouragement that is God’s gift and promise! As one of the fruits of this celebration of family life, may you go back to your homes and become a source of encouragement to others, to share with them Jesus’ “words of eternal life”.
This Spirit filled encouragement and enthusiasm was seen and celebrated at Croke Park on the previous day. There we saw the range, diversity and colour of family life from home and abroad. We experienced the creativity and hope that is born from such a gathering in a way that affirmed all that is good, true and beautiful about family life and the Catholic faith. Similarly, the days at the RDS brought together thousands of groups, testimonies, volunteers and organisations within the Church and reminded us how much good is being done, how much people still value their faith and want to live it with confidence. The energy and enthusiasm of those days remain a platform for hope that all is not lost and that the Church has a healthy future in Ireland and beyond.
Seven years after he was elected, with Pope Francis’ encouragement we commit ourselves again to be people and communities who treasure and protect the institution of the family that the Church believes to be the seedbed for the formation of good human beings and Christians who are salt of the earth and light to the world.
The theme of mercy has been prominent in the words and example of Pope Francis since his election. I believe that history will remember him as the pope who brough the theme of mercy from the margins to the centre of the Church’s message and mission – a process begun before him by St John Paul II. He has been a voice to uphold the rights of immigrants, refugees, victims of human trafficking and people effected by climate change.
In Ireland, he embodied that theme with his visit to the Cappuchin Centre for the homeless in Church Street. To the friars he spoke: ‘You are especially attuned with the people of God, and indeed, with the poor. You have the grace of contemplating the wounds of Jesus in those in need, those who suffer, those who are unfortunate or destitute, or full of vices and defects. For you this is the flesh of Christ. This is your witness and the Church needs it. Thank you’.
This is the message of the Pope to all the Church committed to the order of charity and who serve the poor. He never tires telling us that the Church does not exist for itself but to serve the poor, worship God and proclaim the Gospel. Ours is a Church that goes forth beyond itself and takes the risk of getting its hands soiled in the problems of the world. To those problems and wounds that afflict humanity, the Church brings the healing power of Christ to transform and to make new. In this sacred task we place our trust and continue to serve the Lord in the least of his brothers and sisters to whom he is united (Cf. Matt. 25:31ff).
Church and State:
On his foreign visits, Pope Francis has met heads of state, presidents and world political leaders. He commands their respect as a world leader in his own right.
On his visit to Dublin Castle during the World Meeting of Families, the Pope addressed the Taoiseach, Members of Government and of the Diplomatic Corps. His speech was widely anticipated as was that of the Taoiseach. The speeches of both men found common ground in that both acknowledged a changed relationship between the Irish Church and State while expressing the desire to continue a mature dialogue into the future. In many ways, that dialogue was contained in the speeches themselves. Leo Varadkar’s talk affirmed the good that the Church had done throughout the years and Pope Francis acknowledged the progress the Republic has made to benefit her people and to serve the common good. Both speeches also averted to the failings of the other. On behalf of the State, the Taoiseach expressed the pain and anger over the abuse crisis and the Pope did not shy away from issues like homelessness, the throwaway culture and stripping of the right to life of the unborn.
So what direction can we now take when it comes to the relationship between Church and State? While the separation of Church and State is now accepted, it does not mean that one proceeds by ignoring the other. The issue is more complex as thousands of us have dual citizenship. What is does mean is that the Church is and remains a prophetic voice that challenges any idolisation of the State or the assumption that if the majority of people want something then it must be morally right. The State’s critique of the Church also needs to be listened to and responded to. This is because the Church doesn’t exist in a vacuum but in society and among the Irish people. In the words of the late Jeremiah Newman, former Bishop of Limerick: ‘The Church must hold on to its ideal whilst leaning attentively over humankind, listening to the pulse of humanity’ (Conscience versus Law: Reflections on the Evolution of Natural Law, Talbot Press, Dublin, 1971, 279). In the words of Pope Francis, the Church must know the smell of the sheep and be close to the people she serves.
As we mark seven years since the election of Pope Francis, may we look back with gratitude on important milestones and reflect on these five central themes of his pontificate. As we continue on our pilgrim journey as a Church, may we treasure the gift of our faith for our time; continue to bring healing to those who have been wounded; support families in every way we can; live the Gospel of Mercy and participate actively in the life of both the Church and the country we love.