Elisabetta Piqué’s biography of Pope Francis was a helpful read. Very thorough, it traces his ministry from priest to papacy in an inviting way. As I read about his youth, I was touched by the story of his call to ministry; as Pope Francis told it:
I was nearly seventeen.…I went to my parish church, found a priest I didn’t know, and felt the need to confess. For me this was the experience of a meeting. I found someone who had been waiting for me for a long time. After confession I felt that something had changed. I was no longer the same person. I had really heard a voice, a call: I felt that I had to become a priest (39).
As he rose through the ecclesiastical ranks, he lived a consistent witness to the gospel through helping unjustly pursued prisoners, impoverished persons, etc. Nevertheless, he faced challenges throughout his climb, often from Christians with different, clerical priorities.
When he was elected Pope, the figure of St. Francis came to his mind; thus, he chose the name Francis. And, as Piqué notes, there are many things about St. Francis that emerge from the life of Pope Francis: the notion of repairing the church, concern for the poor and for nature, humility, and nonviolence. Recalling the words of his fellow Cardinal at the papal election, the Pope Francis recalls that
[Hummes] hugged me, kissed me, and said, “Don’t forget the poor!” And that word got inside me: the poor, the poor. Then suddenly, in relation to the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then, while the ballot count went on, I thought about wars…And Francis is the man of peace. And so, the name came to me, to my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and guards the created world; at this time we don’t have a very good relationship with the created world, do we? He’s the man who gives us this spirit of peace, this poor man.…Oh, how I would like a Church that is poor and for the poor! (174).
Elsewhere, he counsels,
Let us all remember it well: you can’t announce the gospel of Jesus without the actual witness of your life. Anyone who listens to us and sees us must be able to read in our actions what he hears from our mouths and give glory to God! I new recall some advice that St. Francis of Assisi gave to his brothers: preach the gospel and, if necessary, use words. Preach with your life, with your witness (183).
For Pope Francis, one must live the story of Jesus because “[i]nconsistency between the faithful and their pastors, between what they say and what they do, between words and way of life, undermines the credibility of the Church” (183). Because he lives what he teaches, people often find him hard to pin down. A situation which causes consternation on the part of Francis also. “I don’t understand,” the Pope once told a associate, “the people on the Catholic right see me as on the left, and the people on the left as someone on the right, but I’m a shepherd who wanted to walk in the midst of his people” (162). Likewise, Piqué notes that, in regard to Francis’ words against runaway capitalism, “Although there is nothing new in the Catholic Church expressing itself on the subject of economic and social justice…the first Jesuit pope’s anathema against the idolization of money does not meet with Wall Street’s approval. Nobody understands whether he is a conservative or a progressive, because as a good Jesuit he can’t be easily pigeonholed” (235).
Because he practices what he preaches, he seeks justice for the marginalized. After a rail accident, Francis says in a homily,
We want justice to be done! We know that behind all this there are authors who were irresponsible, people who didn’t do their duty; we don’t want punishment for its own sake but to correct their hearts because their irresponsibility has cost us dearly, there is no price that can repay a life!…Let it not become a normal thing, Father, that in this city no one is mourned, everything is passed over (120).
Through seeking justice, Piqué reports that Francis denounces “corruption, greed for power and money, divisions, injustices, wars, violence, economic conflicts that hit the weakest, crimes against humanity and against creation” (189). In a stern statement against “the culture of waste,” the Pope says, “Food that is thrown away has in effect been stolen from the table of the poor, the one who is hungry.…Today it isn’t men who give orders; it’s money!…If somebody dies it isn’t news, but if the markets lose ten points it’s a tragedy! So people are discarded as if they were rubbish” (232).
Both his desire to live the gospel and his fight for justice reflect Francis’ favored position between the “two images of the Church.” Francis says that there is “the evangelizing Church, which goes out of itself, the Church of God’s word, which listens to and proclaims faithfully; and the worldly Church, which lives within itself, by itself, and for itself.” The Pope adds, “This consideration must illuminate possible changes and reforms to be carried out for the salvation of souls” (186). Favoring the evangelizing Church, Francis has become an idol crasher—“His Fisherman’s Ring…will no longer be gold but plated with silver. The ceremony of inauguration will no longer be called the Mass of ‘enthronement,’ because ‘there is no king here’…The pope will not want to wear luxurious vestments; he will prefer ordinary, discreet ones, modest like himself” (187, emphasis added). Moreover, the Pope says, after missing a concert, “I am no Renaissance prince who listens to music instead of working” (245). May we all prioritize good work to extravagant excesses!
Desiring a missionary Church, Francis adds, “One of the titles of the Bishop of Rome is ‘pontifex’—that is, the builder of bridges, with God and people. I really hope that the dialogue between us will help build bridges between all people, so that every person can see in another not an enemy, not a rival, but a brother and sister to welcome and embrace” (188–189). Building bridges, then, is important to this Pope, concluding the ceremonies around his election, he says to the gathered crowd, “Since many of you don’t belong to the Catholic Church, others are not believers, I’m giving this blessing to you in silence, to every one of you, respecting each one’s conscience, but knowing that every one of you is a child of God. May God bless you” (174).
All this, of course, is based on the Pope’s presupposition that, “[a]ccording to the standards of the Gospel, every ascent implies a descent: you must go down to serve better” (157). Again, following St. Francis, Pope Francis knows that “the young [St.] Francis abandoned riches and comfort in order to become a poor man among the poor. He understood that true joy and riches do not come from the idols of this world—material things and the possession of them—but are to be found only in following Christ and serving others” (272).
The Pope’s is quite a saintly life, itself worthy of imitation.
Piqué gets at this toward the end of her biography, in her discussion of the “Francis effect,” which “has provoked a boom in Confessions and full churches throughout the world and a significant influx of tourists to Rome…” (216)—I myself, am a product of the Francis effect, having entered full communion with the Roman Catholic Church a year after Pope Francis’ election. Piqué observes that while “resistance [to the Pope sometimes] comes from within the [Catholic] Church[,] Christians—Protestant and Orthodox—Muslims, and Jews are fascinated by this pope who comes from the ends of the world and evidently know how to build bridges” (226).
Piqué ends her book with a discussion of the reforms that Francis is working on. She says, “The challenges Pope Francis faces are gigantic. Beyond his intended cleanup of the central governance of the Church, beyond making its finances more transparent…he has many other issues to deal with. These revolve around putting into practice the rich outcomes of the Second Vatican Council that have yet to be realized: greater collegiality, more synodality in the decision-making process of the Catholic Church, and decentralization” (291). She looks at his various desires to amend the way the Church understands journeying together, that is, synodality, and the call to decentralization. She also says that he is ending the rampant Eurocentrism in the Church—“In this new context, the unity of the Church can only be a unity in plurality and a plurality in unity” (293). She also cites John R. Quinn, who stresses the importance of Francis reforms among the Curia (295), and she says that Francis is interested in being more pastorally present to divorced and remarried persons, women, and married priests. Especially welcomed is Francis’ words about women: “The role of women in the Church is not just motherhood, to be the mother of the family, but is something far stronger; it is the icon of Our Lady, the Madonna, who helps the Church to grow. Our Lady is more important than the apostles. The Church is feminine; she is a wife, a mother. The role of women in the Church can’t be limited to being mothers, workers, providers. It’s more than that. The Church cannot be understood without women, but women who are active in it” (298).
Piqué also speculates about the nature of the papacy in a post-Benedict XVI world, that is, a world in which we have emeritus Popes. Will Francis retire? Only God knows.
In the end, so many of us do feel that Pope Francis “is uno di noi, one of us, and a friend” (306).
May God bless him.