To understand the papacy of Pope Francis, one must look at it in the light of the Father’s Divine Mercy.
This was the reflection shared by Te Kupenga Catholic Theological College moral theologian Fr Bernard Teo, CSsR, at a Zoom talk held on February 25.
Pope Francis, who celebrated his eighth anniversary as Pope on March 13, signalled his intentions to be a reformer as soon as he was appointed Pope by using the name of St Francis, according to Fr Teo.
“Never in the history of our Church had we ever had a pope by the name of Francis. I just got this gut feeling that . . . we are coming in for a wild ride with this pope,” he said, explaining that St Francis was called the great reformer of his time.
Pope Francis’ first act of compassion came a few weeks later when, during Maundy Thursday, he washed the feet, not of 12 cardinals, but 12 prisoners.
“His priority was to bring attention to the little people, those who are ignored or are thought of to be best left forgotten, as they are an embarrassment to establishment circles. And he intends to bring into prominent focus and into public consciousness all those who suffer in one form or another,” Fr Teo said.
Fr Teo noted that Pope Francis gave strong clues about the direction where he wants to take the Church as chief pastor.
Pope Francis touched on the two main issues that the Church is grappling with: doctrinal fidelity and structural changes.
Fr Teo said the changes that the Church has seen in Vatican II had often resulted in division from the top of the hierarchy to the pastoral communities, even extending to the families.
He said Pope Francis has called on pastors to be bold and unafraid in proclaiming the Gospel in new ways, even as we remain faithful to our traditions “with a capital T”.
“He believes that the Word of God, the message of God, is a living message, capable always of reinventing itself to meet the challenges of the times,” he explained.
In Pope Francis’ interview with Fr Antonio Spadaro, SJ, Pope Francis said, “I dream of a Church that is a mother and shepherdess. The Church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people, and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbour. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organisational reforms are secondary — that is, they come afterward.”
Fr Teo said that Pope Francis called on pastors not to be small-minded and bogged down by rules as “the dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent”.
“Pope Francis has shown an appreciation of the passionate and sometimes divisive debates around doctrinal orthodoxy that is still preoccupying the Church. While these are no doubt important, he expressed the view that settling doctrinal questions alone will not touch the hearts or move the wills of the people,” Fr Teo said.
“Preoccupation with these issues without proper resolution that converts hearts at the same time would lead to a wounded and tired Church. And this is what we are experiencing in the Church in the different parts of the world.”
“In other words, how we proclaim the Gospel message is not just in doctrine, but first, the person of Christ and his message.”
Fr Teo said that there is a powerful symbolism in Pope Francis’ canonisation of St John XXIII, who instigated huge structural changes within the Church, and St John Paul II, who pulled back on those changes. Both were canonised on April 27, 2014.
“What is the meaning behind this? Pope Francis is giving a clear message to the Church: we need to change. It is in the nature and experience of the Church in her history to change and to evolve,” Fr Teo said.
“But then, he said, not any kind of change or change for the sake of change; the change must be faithful to the tradition handed down to us.”
After the canonisation of the two popes, Pope Francis declared a Year of Mercy.
“What he (Pope Francis) is doing is . . . he is going back to the very theme of what Jesus came for: it is about the love of God revealed in Christ for all people in the difficult human condition. In the person of Jesus and his work, mercy is a pure gift of grace and the message of hope, of life, of renewal and of conversion, because he was sent to bring us home to the heart of the Father who first loves us,” Fr Teo said.
Following the declaration of the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis’ numerous official statements and magisterial teachings consistently emphasise mercy in the face of global human suffering.
“I believe Pope Francis, by bringing back this theme of mercy, is putting the Church back on mission that is truly faithful to our Gospel mandate from Jesus Christ,” he said.
Like Jesus, Fr Teo said, Pope Francis is always challenged by people.
“Like Jesus, Pope Francis’ insistence on grounding mercy at the heart of the Church’s message and activities, has also exposed the hearts of many believers. He (Pope Francis) asks us to raise difficult questions about who we believe God to be. I suspect that he has also exposed that, in the midst of so much belief, there is also so much unbelief in the Church,” Fr Teo said.
Fr Teo said he believes Pope Francis is taking people on the right path in giving Divine Mercy the prominence it deserves.