March 2023 marks the tenth anniversary of Pope Francis’ pontificate. It is too soon to estimate the historical impact of Pope Francis on the Church and the world, but there is no question that he has re-oriented the Catholic Church in order to meet the distinctive challenges posed by our increasingly secular world. Of the many themes that one could focus on, I want to reflect on those that can be most unifying for Catholics. Division within the Body of Christ is accepted by too many as a feature of being Catholic in today’s world. Factions and fixed mindsets have become the norm. Pope Francis has provided an antidote to this way by refocusing the Church on the primacy of God’s mercy, being a “poor Church for the poor,” Catholic social teaching (especially the rights of immigrants and care for the environment) and the centrality of evangelization. Not only are these unmistakable themes of this pontificate, but central elements of the Catholic tradition that all should embrace in unity.
In the Papal Bull, Misericordiae Vultus (The Face of Mercy) declaring the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy from 2015-16, Pope Francis declared, “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith.” There is no greater theme of this pontificate because there is no greater theme in the Catholic faith, and Pope Francis wants us to experience this mercy ourselves so we can better proclaim the Gospel! Sadly, participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is sorely lacking in our Church today. There are many and varied reasons for this, but the pope has repeatedly called the faithful and priests back to the confessional to humbly confess our sins and experience God’s mercy in our own lives. Without first receiving mercy, we will prove ineffective in offering this gift to others.
The pope also reminds us that the way of Christ’s mercy is to go out in search of the lost, forgotten and voiceless. Pope Francis embodies this merciful call in a particularly powerful way. As a shepherd, he imitates Christ with his concern for the one lost sheep, even if this can be disconcerting at times for the ninety-nine. In Misericordiae Vultus he wrote: “At times we are called to gaze more attentively on mercy so that we can be a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives.” Remember that quote when trying to understand the type of Church Pope Francis is calling us to be.
Rooted in God’s mercy, Pope Francis has reminded us of our call to be a “poor Church for the poor.” In the last 10 years, the Corporal Works of Mercy have taken central stage, and the pope’s actions have been even more powerful than his words. Whether it was his background as an archbishop taking the city bus to serve the poor in the slums in Buenos Aries, his visits to prisons on Holy Thursday, or his embrace of disabled persons, this pope reminds us of what Jesus taught and how He lived. To serve and care for the basic needs of those who are disadvantaged and in need, both personally and societally, is a constitutive dimension of the Christian life. Throughout the Gospels Jesus warns us against the attachment to wealth and material possessions and identifies with those on the margins or “peripheries” (as Pope Francis likes to say). To do likewise as a Catholic is not optional if we seek to be authentic in our discipleship of Jesus Christ.
Flowing from the Corporal Works of Mercy, Catholic Social Teaching has received a special emphasis and focus during the reign of Pope Francis. Our commitment to respect life, serve the poor, promote the dignity of work and rights of workers, advance human development, care for the environment and work for peace and justice is part and parcel of the Christian life. And yet, some ignore or compartmentalize this essential way of life for Catholics. Pope Francis wants us to understand that we cannot know God if we do not integrate our tradition’s social teaching into the very fabric of our lives, parishes, schools and ministries. Caring for the environment and welcoming migrants are matters of particular prophetic concern for the pope, and should also be concerns for his flock as well.
Like St. John Paul II’s teaching on human solidarity, Pope Francis has focused on fraternity among peoples. How many of us, for instance, would prefer to deepen the divisions that are so stark in our Church and our world. Inspired by St. Francis, in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti (All Brothers), the pope writes: “In his simple and direct way, St. Francis expressed the essence of a fraternal openness that allows us to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives.” The pope reminds Catholics, and all people of conscience, they we are all part of the same human family. Most importantly, he calls us to live this way. Consider the impact his pastoral trips have had in war torn places like Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. By all accounts, the pope has made very practical and lasting contributions to peace and fraternity wherever he has visited.
Evangelization is yet another great focal point of Pope Francis. With God’s mercy flourishing in our lives through acts of mercy, service and fraternity, we are best positioned to evangelize effectively. In the encyclical, Evangelli Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), he implores us to root our evangelical mission in Jesus Christ: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting Him encounter them. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk.” The pope reminds us that before we can share Jesus, we must know Jesus. And to really know Him, is to be a person of joy. This joy will draw others to Christ, but hypocrisy, judgmentalism and elitism will push people away.
While the virtues of our post-modern secularist world teach us comfort and security, as a Jesuit, the pope knows that evangelization often takes us to the uncomfortable frontiers and edges of society. The pope wants us to be a Church that goes to the streets and the forgotten places of the world. To be a Catholic, one must assent to follow Jesus wherever He may lead us. Discipleship may lead us through the deserts, slums or war zones of our world, but if we trust in Jesus, we will also be led to abundance. Pope Francis has learned this vital spiritual lesson and wants to share it with the Church.
It may be helpful to conclude this reflection on Pope Francis’ unifying teaching where he began his pontificate. After being announced to the world for the first time as pope on the balcony of St. Peter, the pope declared himself a humble sinner in need of our prayer. In that moment, and throughout his papacy, he reminds us that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy and salvation. Without this awareness, our labors in the Church will lead to nothing.
Anchor columnist Peter Shaughnessy is a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier parish in Acushnet.