(Feb. 27, 2019: This article has been corrected.)
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, is CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and English-language attaché to the Holy See Press Office.
This week marked the third anniversary of the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Bishop of Rome. He took the name Francis and told us he did so because of his love for Francis of Assisi. Over the past three years, many have been associating the new Pope’s gestures and actions with the “Poverello” or “Little Poor One” of Assisi, perhaps the most beloved saint of the Catholic tradition. One day in the late 12th century, the young Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone (later named Francesco) heard the plea of Jesus from the crucifix in the dilapidated San Damiano chapel on Assisi’s outskirts. “Go and repair my Church.”
We can become easily fixated on lots of eye-catching, buzz-causing externals, great photo opportunities and now-famous sound-bite expressions that Pope Francis provides for us on a daily basis: a Pope who invites street people to his birthday breakfast; who tells the driver of his vehicle to stop at the dividing wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem; who invites Muslim clerics to ride with him in the Popemobile in the war-torn Central African Republic. He kisses babies and embraces the sick, disfigured broken bodies and the abandoned of society; delights in holding in-flight press conferences with journalists while many church leaders hold their breath at what will come forth from those now legendary encounters. He has restored Synods of Bishops to their proper purpose: meetings and encounters of church leaders who speak with boldness, courage, freedom and openness rather than staged gatherings of pseudo-concord.
Many sit back, smile and utter: "What a See change!" "What a revolution!" "What simplicity!" "Wow!" "Awesome!" "Finalmente!"
And for many who are watching all of this with differing forms of angst and shock, they ask: "What is he doing?" "How can he continue at this pace?" "Does he remember that he is the Vicar of Christ?" "Will the Francis reform succeed?" The answer is: "Yes." Francis's reform is inevitable because it is not emanating from Assisi, Loyola, Manresa or even from Rome, as significant as those holy places may be! It is based on the New Testament.
At the very beginning of his Petrine ministry, Pope Francis said loud and clear in St. Peter’s Square: “A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just.” His rallying cry has been “mercy” for the past three years. Mercy is essential because all people are sinners, in need of God’s forgiveness and grace, and it’s especially necessary today, at a time when “humanity is wounded,” suffering from “the many slaveries of the third millennium” – not just war and poverty and social exclusion, but also fatalism, hard-heartedness and self-righteousness, as Michiko Kakutani said in her review of Pope Francis’s book.
On the late afternoon of March 13, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio received the call to go, rebuild, repair, renew and heal the church. There are those who delight in describing the new Pope as a bold, brazen revolutionary sent to rock the boat. Others think he has caused a massive shipwreck. But the only revolution that Pope Francis has inaugurated is a revolution of tenderness, the very words he used in his recent major letter on "The Joy of the Gospel" (Evangelii Gaudium No. 88).
And the second revolution he has inaugurated is the revolution of normalcy. What he is doing is normal human, Christian behaviour.
It is his unflinching freedom that allows him to do what he does because he is unafraid and totally free to be himself at the same time as being a most faithful son of the Church. No wonder he has taken the world by storm, and that so many people are paying attention to him, while others are frustrated with his exercise of freedom and his universal outreach.
As E.J. Dionne Jr. noted in the Washington Post in 2014, Pope Francis certainly demands a lot while preaching about a God of mercy, by engaging joyfully with non-believers, atheists, agnostics, skeptics and those sitting on the fences of life – many who thought that Christianity has nothing left to add to the equations of life. For journalists and those in the media, he has made covering religion and the Church interesting, exciting, enticing and rewarding once again. We need the bold, Francis revolution of tenderness, mercy and normalcy now more than ever before.