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TEN YEARS WITH POPE FRANCIS

Fr Billy Swan

13th March 2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the election of Pope Francis as successor of Peter. Here, I briefly highlight seven important themes and emphases of this pontificate so far.

Mercy:

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. He has been a voice to uphold the rights of immigrants, refugees, victims of human trafficking and people effected by climate change.

During his visit to Ireland in 2018, 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).


The importance of symbol and gesture:

I clearly remember the evening Pope Francis was introduced to the world as our new pope as he walked out on to the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. We noticed something immediately – he was not wearing the traditional garb that all his predecessors had done before; just a simple white soutane. Then there was the gesture of him asking us to pray for him and to bless him as he bent down towards the crowds to receive that blessing before he blessed the world afterwards. Within ten minutes of his pontificate and with a simple gesture and sign, the message was communicated that his pontificate was going to be about simplicity and humility. I think it was the Greek Archimedes who once said: ‘Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world.’ In other words, small signs and gestures of meaning can change things more than we expect. These first gestures of Pope Francis were followed by others - him paying his bill at the hotel where he stayed and his first visit outside of Rome to Lampedusa in July 2013 where he met migrants and spoke up about the ‘globalisation of indifference’. All of these gestures and moves set the tone of what was to follow.


The Joy of the Gospel:

Pope Francis constantly refers back to his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation ‘The Joy of the Gospel’. It remains the magna carta of his pontificate and set the Church on a missionary trajectory - away from its own pre-occupations and out towards the world in mission. He clarifies that the Church has a gift to offer, something to contribute – a message that brings joy to the human spirit and that ‘saves us from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness’ (para. 1). For all of us who might feel disillusioned at times, here is a message of hope that takes us back to what being a Christian is all about – that we have a gift that brings joy and we want to share that gift with others. Here is the interpretative key to his pontificate.


A New Way of Being Church:

In 2014 and 2015, Pope Francis began a process of consultation with the universal Church about the pastoral care of marriage and family. This culminated in synods in Rome that finally led to the 2016 Apostolic Exhortation ‘The Joy of Love’. Then in late 2020, he set the Church on the same synodal pathway by outlining his vision for the Church around the world to become more synodal whereby all the baptised would come into closer proximity and develop closer bonds of communion. He also wants to lead a Church where members participate more, both within the Church itself and outwards in her mission to the world. His leadership challenges each parish, including our own, to become more synodal and collaborative, seeking new ways of reaching people and offering them the Good News of the Gospel. As he has often pointed out, the synodal way is not so much a new way of being Church but rather the retrieval of an older way that we see in the Acts of the Apostles and early Church Councils.


Care for our Common Home:

The 2015 encyclical letter ‘Laudato Si’ came at a time when stark warnings were coming from the world of science about the effects of climate change caused by greenhouse gases. This encyclical made it crystal clear that it is an essential part of the moral responsibility of Christians to care for the earth and all that God has made. For Pope Francis, the roots of the environmental crisis come from our illusion that we humans are masters and not stewards of creation – a corruption which takes place when God is displaced from the centre. About creation, he writes: ‘We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will… The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves” (Laudato Si, 2, 6). Slowly but surely, the wisdom and challenges of this document are making an impact. Individuals, communities and parishes are asking themselves how they can become less dependent on oil, reduce energy consumption and become agents of climate justice. For the whole Church, the urgency of an ecological conversion remains a pressing call.


A Universal Fraternity:

As Pastor of the Universal Church, Pope Francis has a universal outlook. He must see and does see the whole of humanity before him. With his 2020 encyclical letter ‘Fratelli Tutti’, Francis outlined his concern to foster fraternity among all peoples in the spirit of St Francis of Assisi. He directly addressed the problem of alienation and polarization within the Church and in thew world. Informed by our faith that all of creation was made through Christ, the pope uses the language of unity and peace in Fratelli Tutti, talking of ‘a heart open to the whole world’; ‘dialogue and friendship in society’ and ‘religions at the service of fraternity in our world’. In ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, the pope insisted that ‘unity prevails over conflict’ and urges that all the baptised be imbued with a spirit of friendship and fraternity that seeks to build bonds of unity beginning with the humanity we all share in common.


On Good Friday next, the whole Church will pray for Pope Francis that ‘our God and Lord, who chose him for the Order of Bishops, may keep him safe and unharmed for the Lord's holy Church, to govern the holy People of God’. Today we give thanks to God for keeping Pope Francis safe for the past ten years and for his leadership, care and guidance of the Church. Among other things, he has been a tireless prophet of God’s mercy; he has led by example on the importance of meaningful gestures that make a real difference; he has reminded us that we have a gift to share which is nothing less than the joy of the Gospel; he has led us back to being synodal Church instead of a clerical Church; he has stated unambiguously our moral responsibilities as Christians to care for the earth our common home. Finally, he has invited us to think bigger and wider to embrace our vocation as Church as a sign and instrument of a humanity united in respect and fraternity. Ten years after he asked the crowds to bless him and pray for him on that fateful night on 13th March 2013 in St Peter’s Square, may we do so again on this milestone. Viva il Papa!!


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