Habemus Papem +1: Insights from a Pope Francis Symposium

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Full disclosure: I'm a big fan of Pope Francis. So when I received an invitation from Loyola University Chicago’s The Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage to attend a symposium on his first year as pope, I jumped at the opportunity. Loyola University Chicago—my alma mater—brought together a distinguished panel of speakers who discussed different aspects of Francis’ first year in the papacy.

Although each had many interesting insights and thoughts they relayed in the time allotted, here are their top points in my opinion:

1. Argentinean Jesuit Rev. Gustavo Morello, assistant professor of sociology at Boston College

As Morello put it, Pope Francis “has always been a regular man, but he is not naïve about power. He knows how power works.” He is also not a “lone ranger” at the Vatican. He is part of the cardinals. They appointed him. They support him—even if some have their concerns.

This point mixes together the duality of Francis: a normal man who cares deeply for all people and a great PR representative and leader for the Catholic Church.

With Francis’ care and enthusiastic approaches, the church has the power to go out and heal the world. His powerful PR message—that humble man who washes the feet of prisoners and women, embraces a physically deformed man, and invites autistic young men to ride in the popemobile—is not just rhetoric, but action. He knows exactly what he is doing.

2. Jesuit Rev. Peter Bernardi, associate professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago

Bernardi feels that Francis is looking for a “reform papacy”—which is even connected to his saintly namesake who allegedly heard a crucifix tell him, “Go, Francis, and repair my church…” After the demystification of the papacy with the resignation of Benedict XVI, Francis saw an opportunity to reach out past Rome and ask for suggestions.

And Francis is surely doing this. With his commissions, surveys, and election of non-European cardinals, he is interested in many worldly views. With his openness, many feel drawn to Francis and believe he will change the way Catholics see the world, and the way the world sees Catholics.

3. Matt Malone, editor-in-chief of America magazine

Francis’ opening words in the interview he conducted last year which was published in America were, “I am a sinner.” Malone says that this was to create unity for all Catholics. We are all sinners.

We frequently divide the church into groups of “they”—“conservatives,” “liberal,” “cafeteria Catholics”—but Francis wants to remind us that we are the body of Christ. If we don’t scapegoat each other, that’s when change starts to happen.

What a powerful message. In a world of such division, if we become cohesive as Catholics, we can let stop worrying about “small-minded rules” and concentrate on love, mercy, compassion. The words of Mother Teresa come to mind: If you judge people, you have no time to love them.

4. Dr. Susan Ross, professor of theology and a faculty scholar at Loyola University Chicago

Ross finds Francis’ comments on “women’s delicacy” off-putting. “Who are these delicate women?!” she asks. The women she knows are workers, child bearers, sweatshop employees, water gatherers. There is nothing delicate about them.

Her concern lies with gender terms in the church. Although she is not necessarily optimistic, preferring the term “cautiously nonpessimistic,” she hopes that Francis will think more about the situation and try to advance relations between women and the church. She believes that Francis has great potential to be a feminist.

5. Hon. Miguel Díaz, professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton and a former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See

Díaz spoke of the new evangelization and how Francis is continuing this mission of his two predecessors. “Evangelization involves coming out of oneself and getting in the face of those who are suffering.” As a “field hospital,” the church has the power to take the mercy of God and go out and heal.

I believe this is exactly what we need to do. Francis’ actions have been incredibly refreshing to see and his hands-on approach is inspiring. We’ve got to lead by our Christian example if we want a peaceful, caring world.

6. John L Allen, Jr., CNN’s senior Vatican analyst and assistant editor at The Boston Globe

In his work, Allen has noticed that there is an “electricity around [Francis] that cannot be denied or bottled up.” If we don’t want to derail the energy of our “missionary-in-chief”, we need to be seen as a community that is genuinely striving to be a field hospital trying to heal the world with love and mercy, and not as a debating society concerned with doctrine and ideology.

There is no doubt that Francis’ actions are infectious. Only one year into his papacy and his face is on the cover of several magazines; he has more than 12 million followers on Twitter and was Google’s most-searched person in 2013.

But my questions are these: Are we still in a honeymoon phase which will soon end with Francis’ actions becoming static to us? Or will we join him on his mission of love and mercy?

Only time will tell.


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