Pope Francis relies on the Holy Spirit to direct his ministry

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Monday, June 12, 2017

Pope Francis prays during a Pentecost vigil marking the 50th anniversary of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal at the Circus Maximus in Rome June 3. In the front row with the pope are Gilberto Barbosa from Brazil, Michelle Moran, president of International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services, Patti Gallagher Mansfield, a participant in the 1967 Pittsburgh retreat that marked the beginning of the charismatic renewal, and Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, Promoting Christian Unity. CNS photo/Paul Haring

VATICAN CITY — If there’s one person of the Trinity that Pope Francis is closest to, it’s the Holy Spirit.

He repeatedly speaks of the role of the Spirit, urging bishops to be alert to its promptings in order to read the "signs of the times." It is the Holy Spirit who blows where it wills, is full of surprises and leads the church on a bold, daring path "without rigidity."

On the eve of Pentecost the pope showed his "spirit-credentials" by joining 30,000 at the Circus Maximus, ancient Rome’s chariot racing stadium, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Catholic charismatic movement. While initially being wary of pentecostals and charismatics when he was archbishop of Buenos Aries, Francis is a convert to that free-flowing worship with arms in the air.

On the evening of June 3, Francis was pictured eyes closed with palms open flanked by two women: Michelle Moran, the president of the international Catholic charismatic Rome office, and Patti Gallagher Mansfield, an author and speaker closely involved with charismatic renewal.

"Staying close to the spirit" could be a motto for this papacy, which allows Francis the freedom to make spur-of-the-moment decisions while ensuring the church’s mission is nimble and unencumbered by structures built for previous generations.

It can also be the way to deal with divisions inside the church, the different camps of Catholics who often view one another from afar, and with suspicion.

Under Francis there’s been opening up of discussion within the church; there’s less fear about asking questions about, say, married priests or female deacons that in the past might have led to a letter from Rome. On the flip side, the new freedom has led to more open disagreements, which were witnessed around the two synods of bishops on the family.

The pope has addressed this question of camps in the church twice in recent weeks.

"We become avid supporters for one side, rather than brothers and sisters in the one Spirit," he said during his Pentecost homily in St. Peter’s. "We become Christians of the ‘right’ or the ‘left,’ before being on the side of Jesus, unbending guardians of the past or the avant-garde of the future before being humble and grateful children of the church. The result is diversity without unity."

On the other hand, "unity without diversity," the pope says, is uniformity "where everyone has to do everything together and in the same way, always thinking alike." After all, St. Peter disagreed vehemently with St Paul.

For Francis it is the Holy Spirit who ensures diversity and unity can be held together: yes, Catholics can honestly differ from one another, but this shouldn’t become a damaging exercise of undermining one another.

"The church is like a river: the important thing is to be in the river," the pope explained during his visit to the Archdiocese of Genoa in northwest Italy earlier this month. "If you are in the center or more to the right or to the left, but within the river, this is a legitimate variety."

While concerns about right-wing or left-wing Catholics seem to be a more recent preoccupation, rooting out clericalism has been a long-term project for this pope. He sees this as an evil spirit infecting the church like a cancer, distancing people from the faith while enabling a culture of worldliness to come before the Gospel.

The problem of clericalism came up again during the pope’s one-day Genoa trip when he addressed it during a meeting with bishops, priests, religious and seminarians from across the entire local region.

"What we should fear the most is to live a static life. That of a priest who has everything sorted out, everything in order, well structured and at its place," Francis said during a two-hour meeting. "I am afraid of the static priest, the ones who are static even during prayer."

He added: "Maybe that pastor is a good businessman, but is he a Christian? Or does he live as a Christian? He is celebrating Mass, but how? As a Christian or as a businessman?"

A priest, he continued, should be "a man on the road, walking, open to the surprises of God"; a phrase that fits with his call for shepherds to be "living with the smell of the sheep." This is crucial to Francis because ordained ministers of the church serve as crucial links between the institution and people’s everyday lives.

The pope has called for priests and bishops to be ready to connect with the world around them, to get down from their pedestals and become immersed in their flocks. To be humble, authentic and ready to learn.

"There is a danger, and that is of having created the image of a priest who knows everything, and does not need any advice," the pope added. "Kids may say, ‘but he is like a Google and Wikipedia priest!’ And this is so bad for our priestly life."

Those who know Francis best say that the basics of being a priest that energizes him: performing the sacraments, engaging with those on the margins of society. He derives inspiration from these encounters, rather than seeing them as a duty that he must perform.

Francis has said he still sees himself as a "street priest," the same person who, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, would spend weekends in the slums of the sprawling Argentine capital.

When it comes to tackling clericalism and the camps of left and right, the pope wants a "pastoral conversion" from within, and to plot out the new paths required of the church in the 21st century. But in order for that conversion to happen, an openness to the spirit is vital.


  • priests
  • pope francis
  • devotion
  • charismatic
  • penecostal
  • holy spirit

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