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Bridge builder: 'The Pope of mercy' is showing the way

He can't reform the Catholic Church fast enough for liberals and will always be a dangerous progressive to Vatican conservatives. But the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio is living up to his reputation as 'Pope of Mercy'

By Martin O'Brien

They are three of the most iconic public platforms from which a personage can be privileged to pronounce. When you think about it, they can only be fit for a Pope.

No one has graced all three before. But, in just over two weeks' time, Pope Francis will, after a trip to Cuba, address a joint session of the United States Congress in Washington DC and the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York before travelling to Philadelphia to deliver an address to the World Meeting of Families (WMF) outside Independence Hall from the very lectern that President Abraham Lincoln used to deliver his Gettysburg Address.

"The beauty of the lectern is, it's extremely simple. I think that ties into who Pope Francis is," said Bob Ciarruffoli, president of the WMF.

The Queen, when she visited him, responded to that simpler style of the Francis papacy by cutting down on protocol and bringing him simple presents, such as honey and eggs.

Every word that "the Pope of the Poor" will utter in a series of homilies and speeches in the world's richest country will be eagerly awaited - not just by the Catholic faithful, but by a large swathe of humanity with whom this pope has connected in a phenomenal way.

His words will be parsed and spun by a range of interests with points to make and axes to grind, including wealthy conservatives who think he is a dangerous socialist, whose call in his recent eco-encyclical Laudato si' for "ecological conversion" and phasing out of fossil fuels threatens vested interests, such as the multi-trillion dollar oil and gas industries.

A minority of Catholics, including US Cardinal Raymond Burke, who apparently fear that "the Pope of Mercy" is intent on undoing millennia of Church teaching on marriage at next month's second Synod on the Family, will be watching like hawks. (Burke had his wings clipped by Francis last year).

But many mainstream Catholics not interested in labels, such as "liberal" or "conservative", regard Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, 266th successor to St Peter, as a breath of fresh air.

They think he should be even bolder in his drive for reform and encouraged in advancing what Vaticanista John L Allen Jnr described as "the Francis Revolution" at the Down and Connor Faith & Life Convention in Belfast a year ago. Those who see Francis as a breath of fresh air say he is reminiscent of Pope St John XXIII, who called Vatican II and famously said he wanted the fresh air of the Holy Spirit in to blow away the cobwebs in the Church.

When I saw Francis for the first time that memorable evening in March 2013, when he stepped out on the great loggia of St Peter's Basilica for the first time, the first person he reminded me of was Pope John.

With the international migrant crisis raging, a humanitarian disaster prophetically highlighted by Francis at the beginning of his pontificate with his visit to the Italian Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, and the Pope's headline-grabbing announcement this week that women seeking forgiveness for abortion may, during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy, have their Confession heard by a priest - without the hassle of having to go up the line to a bishop - his words in America will be dissected as never before.

In fairness to Pope Francis, he will never be able to move fast enough for impatient liberals and he will always dismay suspicious conservatives who see even modest change as something akin to heresy and a threat to the clericalism and abuse of power that is so damaging to the Church. "Be attentive to the comfortable sin of clericalism," Francis warned priests in June.

By stressing the mercy and forgiveness of God over what he sees as an unnecessary reiteration of teaching on sexual-related matters, Francis has prompted some to ask what has happened to sin.

They usually mean sexual sin, but Francis - the former "Bishop of the Slums" - through his Argentinian and Latin American prism, has been highlighting other sin, eg sinful economic structures that institutionalise and perpetuate poverty in a world where the poorest 50% control barely 1% of the wealth.

The journalist Paul Vallely wrote an excellent book on the Holy Father, Pope Francis: Untying the Knots (Bloomsbury), which has just been expanded and updated with the interesting sub-title: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism.

Vallely examines allegations against the-then Fr Bergoglio arising from his behaviour in the Seventies and early Eighties, when he was for a decade Provincial, or leader, of the Jesuits in Argentina.

He concluded that Bergoglio did not betray two fellow Jesuits priests to the security forces during the "Dirty War", but that the future pope "had behaved recklessly and has been trying to atone for his behaviour ever since". He also showed that Bergoglio did organise escape routes for those fleeing death squads.

Vallely remarks that the greatest difference between Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Pope Francis is "the smile".

Pictures of the-then Archbishop Bergoglio show him looking dour. "The locals called him 'Horseface' ... today Pope Francis never stops smiling".

Vallely writes: "Being made Pope seems to have liberated him to be the person he feels God meant him to be. 'I felt great peace,' Francis has said, speaking of the moment he was elected. 'For me, this was a sign that God wanted it. Great peace. From that day to this I have not lost it.' Change is part of a long spiritual journey for Bergoglio."

Vallely adds: "Two things are key and there are contradictory tensions between them. The first is his growing conviction that sinful economic structures are what keep poor people poor. Structural change must be part of the solution ... The second change stems from the lessons he learned after his time as Provincial, where he was given authority at too young an age and made, he has confessed, 'hundreds of errors'.

"As a result, the Jesuits sent him into exile in Cordoba, where he experienced a 'great interior crisis'. He emerged a changed man, having swapped his authoritarianism for a readiness to listen and consult."

Vallely says Francis wants "a monarchical model of papacy replaced by a more collegial and consultative decision-making".

One cannot overestimate how Francis' Jesuit training and vocation continues to shape his whole approach to the papacy. Irish priest and fellow Jesuit Fr Gerry Whelan SJ told Newsweek: "Francis believes in change by committee. He trusts the consultative process. It is embedded deep in the Jesuit system. Listening and serving on committees are features of the order."

Another name for the pope is "pontiff", which comes from a Latin word, meaning "bridge-builder" used for some of the priests of ancient Rome.

It is an apt word, because every pope is meant to be a unifier and a bridge between the different, yet complementary, wings of the Universal Church.

One of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, states: " ... try to be like a balance at equilibrium, without leaning to either side".

St Ignatius couldn't have imagined that those Exercises would be practised one day by a Pope.

Martin O'Brien is a journalist and communications consultant and a former award-winning BBC producer

A life so far

  • Born 1936 in Buenos Aires, Argentina of Italian immigrant parents
  • Trained as a chemical technician and has only one functioning lung
  • Ordained a priest in 1969
  • Appointed Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998 and known as "Bishop of the Slums"
  • Elected first New World pope and first Jesuit pontiff in 2013

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