Michael W. Higgins is Basilian Distinguished Fellow of Contemporary Catholic Thought at the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College and a senior fellow at Massey College. He is currently writing a book on Pope Francis.
If there is one thing that consistently defines the life approach of Pope Francis – born Jorge Mario Bergoglio – it’s his gift for spontaneity. He loves a media scrum, delights in departing from his scripted texts, and revels in the unrehearsed and immediate response. In fact, he doesn’t even attempt to disguise the occasional inconsistency. Popes can change their minds and this Pope does so – and publicly.
A perfect example can be found in his ever-altering opinions about yet another papal retirement. He has variously spoken about retiring – where, when and how – and has valued the precedent of the head of his own religious order, the Jesuits, sometimes dubbed the Black Pope, when he chose to step down from a position traditionally seen as a life sentence.
So when he mooted to a group of Jesuits recently while on his visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo that he saw the papacy as a “for life” calling, few were surprised and many were relieved.
This capacity for change is illustrative of his papacy: speak your mind, free up others to speak their mind, and mess things up because complacency and easy compliance to tradition stifle the work of Holy Spirit. Fearless Francis is an inspiring pope for many and a reckless pope for others.
Will no one stifle this meddlesome pope, you can hear them exclaim in quiet – and, in some dissident circles, vocal – desperation.
On this 10th anniversary of the Bergoglio papacy, their cries have not diminished, and in some cases following the death of Benedict XVI, they have become more brazen. We see this with the late Cardinal George Pell labelling the Francis pontificate a catastrophe, Cardinal Gerhard Müller deploring the papacy’s direction, or Archbishop Georg Gänswein whining over the Pope’s inattention to the wishes of Benedict on liturgical reform. But for the vast majority of Catholics, this papacy, with its drama, unpredictability, and warm humanity, is a welcome reprise of an earlier papacy: John XXIII (1958-1963).
To understand what Pope Francis has been doing during this past decade, it is key to review what John began in 1962: ushering in a new age for the Catholic Church with the Second Vatican Council. The many changes you find in modern Catholicism – as well as its seemingly endless turmoil – are the result of the church wrestling with the insights and teachings of this unprecedented moment of historical renewal.
Following any huge structural upheaval there is a period of restoration, a stabilizing or balancing polity designed to calm the waters, and that is what the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were about. With Bergoglio, we have Roncalli Redux. Time for some more upheaval.
When the seasoned Vaticanologist and papal biographer Peter Hebblethwaite wrote his biography of Paul VI, the pope who succeeded John XXIII and presided over the remaining years of the Council when John died after its first session, he called him the “Pope of the Council.” But that appellation is best reserved for Pope Francis. He understands the Council and the implications of its shape-altering thinking and pastoral thrust better than his predecessors.
If John threw open the windows for updating – aggiornamento – Pope Francis has unbarred the doors. Not because the church needs to accommodate itself to society, but because it lives in society as a leaven and as a beacon. Using his preferred metaphor of the church as a field hospital, Pope Francis has prioritized mercy over rules, inclusion over tight club membership, anguished questioning over religious certitude, the marginalized over the centre, the intuitive over the ratiocinative, chaotic unity over a procrustean conformity.
As Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio or Vatican ambassador to the United States, recently observed of his boss in his lecture Pope Francis: Origins and Destination, Leading the Synodal Journey, Pope Francis understands that “human life is always teeming, chaotic, in flux” and that reform of “ecclesial realities, liturgical expressions, legal systems, and so on” requires “evolution, plasticity and dynamism.”
Pope Francis is drawn more to the creative frenzy of an ecclesiastical universe analogous to quantum physics than the sublime architecture of a Ptolemaic one. In short, he prefers reality to metaphysics. And the difficult task of making the Gospel the entry point for a deeper humanity, the church a big tent, a home in which all women and men are welcome, is the task he has embraced as the Successor of Peter. His election in 2013 was a zeitenwende, or epoch-turning point, for the Catholic Church, and he has much more in store as he enters into his second decade.