What’s So Peculiar About Pope Francis?

Five unique aspects of the first year of Pope Francis.

They say that change is rare at the Vatican, but most everyone seems to agree that something new has happened in the last year. Pope Francis happened. Not a policy or a proposal, but a person.

The leader of a 2000 year-old religious institution was the most-talked about subject on Facebook in 2013. Non-Catholics love him. And among many Catholics there is a renewed sense of hope and optimism — a lightness about being Catholic, where recently there was only the heaviness of scandal.

Francis is not only popular, he’s peculiar: a peculiar pope because he’s become big precisely by making himself and his office smaller.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of Pope Francis, let’s take stock of this peculiar pope with these five aspects of his peculiar papacy.

1. He was a surprise selection.

The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio certainly came as a surprise to me.

I had a chance to call the election. Right before the new pope’s appearance, a radio anchor at the Vatican asked me who I thought we’d see. Speaking on the phone over the roar of the crowd, I said the new pope must be Italian. Since cardinals were on just their fifth round of balloting, I figured only a well-connected Italian would be able to reach the two-thirds majority required to elect a pope.

I had heard Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s name before. Rumor had it that he had come in second to Joseph Ratzinger in the last papal election in 2005. I teach at a Jesuit college, and had also heard about Bergoglio from my Jesuit friends and colleagues. Bergoglio was not only cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires; he was also a member of the Society of Jesus—a religious order established by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1540.

2. He is a Jesuit.

Long considered to be the intellectuals of the church, the Jesuits have always had a close relationship with the Papacy. They were often the pope’s shock troops, sent as missionaries and institution builders to far away lands.

But the Jesuits also made enemies. In the 18th century, Jesuits were accused of political meddling by Catholic monarchs jealous of their influence. Anti-Jesuit sentiment was so great that in 1773, Pope Clement XIV bowed to pressure and declared that the Jesuit order was “perpetually broken up and dissolved.” Many Jesuits were subsequently exiled from Catholic countries. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Jesuit order being restored by Pope Pius VII. Even more recently, during the pontificate of John Paul II, the Jesuits seemed to have fallen out of favor — they were considered too liberal, not obedient enough. My Jesuit friends and colleagues thought that checkered history was enough to prevent a Jesuit from being elected pope.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio also brought unique Jesuit baggage. Before he became Archbishop, Bergoglio was in charge of the Argentina Province of the Society of Jesus. During that time, the Jesuits were conflicted about how to deal with the ruling military regime. Some saw Bergoglio as being too interested in accommodation and not supportive enough of Jesuits who had put themselves in harm’s way to help the poor and afflicted.

But in the end, Bergoglio’s Jesuit background was seen as an advantage. Jesuits are not just known for their support of the poor and their pursuit of social justice. They are also known for a particularly demanding spirituality that requires a daily “examination of conscience.” Most important, the Jesuit approach to life places the person and example of Jesus Christ at the center of all things. That Francis is a Jesuit doesn’t mean that he’s “liberal” or “conservative” in a conventional sense.  Instead, it means that he’s Catholic in the fullest sense of the term.

3. He speaks his heart and mind.

Early on, Francis showed that he liked to speak off the cuff, eschewing the highly formal papal pronouncements that are rigorously vetted so that they do not cause confusion. His now-famous response — “Who am I to judge?” — when asked about gay priests was not so much a change in doctrine, but a change in style. Here we saw a pope engaging the complexity of human experience in a way not often seen in public.

But if Pope Francis has impressed many with his authenticity, he’s also caused some consternation. While papal pronouncements are considered to be infallible only under the most specific conditions, everything a pope says attracts a great deal of attention and scrutiny.  Catholic conservatives are especially concerned that Francis’ thinking out loud could undermine the carefully laid foundations of Catholic doctrine. Some theologians, only half jokingly, have suggested that the Catholic church is going to need a new theory regarding papal statements — one that covers not just magazine interviews, but phone calls and give and take between the pope and his many admirers.

4. He has Pope Benedict to thank for his papacy.

Pope Francis’ immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, was a professor pope, a brilliant theologian who also tried to revive some of the pomp and circumstance associated with the papacy — he liked old-style priestly garb, and showed a particular fondness for hats, especially those trimmed with ermine fur. It’s easy to see how Pope Francis’s simplicity stands in stark contrast and how this would be a welcome change for some. And Francis has emphasized different themes — the church is more of a community and less of a hierarchical institution; Jesus is less of a priest and more of an itinerant preacher close to the poor.

But Benedict XVI did one thing that allowed everything new that we’ve seen from Pope Francis: he resigned the papacy. Benedict believed the papacy, “the Petrine ministry,” was important, but that he himself was dispensable: when the time came, Benedict had no problem letting go. As he promised, Benedict XVI has remained quiet and out of public view. Benedict’s acts of humility, more than anything else, have given Francis the opportunity to be pope in a new kind of way.

5. He’s a sinner like you and me.

More change brewing behind the scenes. Pope Francis has appointed a committee of cardinals to suggest reforms to Vatican bureaucracy. He has removed much of the leadership of the Vatican bank. As my friend and colleague Thomas Worcester has observed, there are palpable doctrinal developments with Francis, especially concerning understandings of the Church and Jesus, that might seem nuanced and subtle now, but could have far a reaching impact.

But for me, the most consequential thing that Pope Francis has done is to admit his own need for God. Speaking in an interview for the Jesuit magazine America, Pope Francis matter-of-factly described himself as a “sinner.”

The admission that a pope can and does sin seems rather obvious and inconsequential to anyone who knows something about the papacy’s history. But by making the papacy more human, Francis has made it more relevant to human questions and concerns.

In emphasizing the limits of himself as a human being, Pope Francis has expanded our sense of what is possible for us as human beings — since all finally depends on the mercy of God who “never tires of forgiving us.”

Francis is a peculiar pope because he seems like such a paradox. But grappling with paradox, and peculiarity, is finally at the heart of what it means to be human, and why Pope Francis matters to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Mathew N. Schmalz
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  • Katalina

    I agree with much of this article until the previous pope is mentioned. Yes you are correct that he has him to thank for being elected but I disagree about the Vestments he wore it was NOT to be pompous because he said himself the Pope is not an absolute monarch. What he was trying to do was to show that the Church is one with its past there is NO old and new Church which seemed to be very widely perceived after Vatican II. Francis is peculiar to me sometimes when he quotes the Bible but yes he speakers he mind but so did the other popes before him including Paul VI. Sometimes Many don’t know what he’s talking about. But

  • areyousaying

    In regard to allowing Cardinals Dolan, Wuerl, George, Mahoney and Law still knowing perverts parading around in collars with access to more little boys, there is nothing peculiar about Francis.

    different Pope
    same coverup