Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

What makes Pope Francis tick?

March 7, 2018

One evening I was having dinner with a friend who is a prominent leader in the world of entertainment. He is not Catholic, but professed to have a very strong liking of our Holy Father, Pope Francis. He appreciated his clear voice in defense of the marginalized, his powerful symbolic witness in actions such as washing the feet of prisoners and his radiant and joyful interactions with people from every background.

“What makes him tick?” he asked. “What centers him and directs his life?” I replied: “The Holy Father genuinely believes not only that Jesus rose from the dead 2,000 years ago, but is risen, active and alive in the world, leading the church today. Pope Francis sees his role as being attentive to all that Jesus is doing and calling us to be in our time.” Seeing the puzzled look on my friend’s face, I got the impression that I had totally befuddled him, as though he were speaking to someone who had just arrived from Mars. 

Perhaps my explanation came across as too simplistic for him, but I am convinced that we really cannot understand Pope Francis without attending to that deeply held belief. It is because of his firm faith that Christ is alive and active in the church that he is insisting on a new pastoral approach for the church and its ministers. Ministry begins with encounter, continues with accompanying and leads to integration more fully into the life of the church, because that is precisely the way of Jesus. 

The Holy Father’s core conviction about the resurrection of Jesus also helps us make sense of his urging not to judge others or become an obstacle by denying God’s grace to those whose lives are imperfect. The pope rightly believes that, as one who has broken down the barrier between time and eternity through his resurrection, Christ loves without limit or condition. 

Likewise, his sensibility about the Risen Christ acting in the world is the reason he considers discernment to be central to the Christian life, a discernment that is ever attentive to Christ calling each of us to be more fully fashioned into his likeness. This is why pastors are urged to help form consciences and not replace them. 

The model is accompaniment of those they serve by getting to know their situation rather than applying in a mechanical and rigid way general rules and principles to particular circumstances. This is what it means to trust in the Risen Lord to lead us gradually, step by step to the fullness of the truth. Pope Francis refers to this as the divine pedagogy of gradualness. 

As I recount the conversation with my friend around this fifth anniversary of Francis’ election as pope, it occurs to me that Pope Benedict XVI also shared these same convictions about the centrality of Christ’s resurrection for his ministry. His very decision to resign after accepting his physical limitations was perhaps one of the most compelling witnesses in our time to a faith in the Risen Lord. 

He knew the church would continue quite well without him because it is Christ’s church and he promised to be with us to the end of time. Pope Benedict trusted that Christ would open a way ahead for the church. But his belief in the presence and action of the Risen Christ also shaped his understanding of how each of us should approach living out our discipleship in following Jesus. 

For instance, like Pope Francis, he advocated for “the law of gradualness” when it comes to judgment in particular cases. He wrote that there is a need to recognize “the distinction between objective disorder and subjective guilt, which depends greatly on intentions, motivations and concrete circumstances. … In this line the law of gradualness has been rightly developed. … As judge, Christ is not a cold legalist.” 

Pope Benedict also insisted that we view our Christian faith not as a set of laws or rules, a philosophy or ideology, but first of all as an encounter with the Risen Lord that transforms our lives. In a word, the core belief in the action and presence of the Risen Lord is the same for both popes.
It is important to keep that in mind as we pray for the Holy Father as he begins his sixth year as Successor of Peter. Undoubtedly, his bold words and gestures, which give expression to his core conviction about the Risen Lord, have threatened some who find change difficult and would prefer things to remain the same, particularly if it means their influence and power are being challenged. 

For this reason, it is not surprising that we occasionally hear voices, unfortunately often expressed in print and broadcast media claiming to be Catholic, who criticize Pope Francis for introducing topics such as discernment, dialogue, mercy, gradualness to help us understand better our Christian lives. What they miss in their criticism is that everything the Holy Father is saying is based on his core conviction, one shared by his predecessors, that Christ is truly risen and active in the church and in each of our lives. As Pope Francis puts it, this means “Christ is always doing something new.” 

Initially I thought that these contrarian voices were motivated by fear of change, fear of development and growth. Certainly some are. But I also have come to wonder whether they fail to appreciate fully the truth that Christ is risen, alive and active in the life of the church and the world. 
Absent such an appreciation, there will always be a tendency to fixate on laws and rules, or to place one’s confidence in human efforts of personal heroism as the starting point of the spiritual life, as opposed to trusting in God’s ever-present grace and mercy to overcome any sin. I notice that just this past week, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith warned of the danger of teachings that propose that we can earn salvation by our own efforts. This error has deep roots in the church’s history and is called Pelagianism, the belief that we can will our own salvation.

The Holy Father rightly notes that an approach to our faith that does not start with God’s grace and mercy ends up “watering down the Gospel.” It also can leave us joyless, turning us, as the pope colorfully puts it, into “sourpusses.” Without a daring trust in God’s grace and a confidence in God’s action in the world, we can easily fall into “a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists.”
As Pope Francis celebrates the fifth anniversary of his election on March 13, let us take this opportunity to follow his example and make our faith in the Risen Lord the center of our lives. It is also an occasion to reaffirm our fidelity to the Successor of Peter, whom Jesus commissioned in a special way to lead the church. 

We can look to no better example in doing this than Pope Benedict, who trusted that the Lord would lead the church after his resignation. He also professed absolute loyalty to Pope Francis, which he reaffirmed one day when some visitors came to his residence to complain about his successor. Benedict’s response? He showed them the door. 


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