What Is Pope Francis Up To?

By guest blogger Dr. David Delaney

What is Pope Francis up to?  This is the question many of us have been asking since we were surprised with the blessing of a new Holy Father to replace our beloved Pope Benedict XVI.  Almost everyone was surprised to have received an American pope from the far ends of the earth who took the name of Francis.

Many have been looking to St. Francis of Assisi to try to interpret his words and actions, and for some hint of where he may be heading.  However, it is becoming clear that while there is great significance to his taking the name of Francis, we must likewise pay closer attention to his background as an Argentinian Jesuit and to his symbolic actions which are hints as to what he is thinking.

Now some things are obvious from his words.  We know that he was elected by Cardinals who agreed that the new pope’s priority must be reform of the curia and the Church and that he took this charge as his marching orders.  He has told us many things about what he sees as his priorities.  He wants, using the words of Benedict XVI, a poor Church for the poor, he wants bishops and priests to be pastors rather than administrators, he wants all Catholics to go out and evangelize.  However, we are not yet quite sure how he intends to bring these things about.  Now we hear news of new encyclical in the works, the first significant teaching taken on his own initiative. And what will be the topic?  It will be a clarification for religious on the vow of poverty but he says it will also be meant for the laity.

Now we know that he wants a “poor Church.” He tells us that this means that we must realize that we have nothing to offer of our own.  We have nothing of value to offer the world but Christ.  It is evident that Francis sees a Church which recognizes and lives its poverty not as a pie in the sky idea.  An encyclical is one of the most solemn forms of teaching that can come from the papal Magisterium and so we need to take this topic as one of supreme significance.  But how does this all fit together in his plan?  I suggest the answer may be found in recalling one of the first things he did after his installation.  He went to St. Mary Major and prayed at the tomb of St. Pius V.  We may be starting to see the need to look more closely at St. Pius V’s life and his program of reform.  I would suggest that a nice little summary of St. Pius V in the Catholic Encyclopedia could be very instructive.

While popes have a relatively short list of peers, one can see how Pope Francis would feel a close kinship with St. Pius V.  Pius V was known for his austere living, his humility and his view of the importance of poverty.  Pius removed all aspects of luxury from the papal court, he lived austerely himself, and was said to have a special love for the poor and outcast.  He was said to have converted an English nobleman who watched him kiss the ulcerated feet of a beggar.  He led a reform of the clergy, especially requiring bishops to become authentic pastors in their dioceses. He had a special concern to return religious orders to the practice of the evangelical counsels and their original charisms; especially reforming the Cistercians.  His great Marian devotion can be said to have saved Europe from Muslim invasion at Lepanto (notice Francis’ appeal to Mary Queen of Peace for peace in Syria).  Pius was also a zealous defender of the faith but simultaneously exhorted bishops to work for reunion with the recently separated Protestants.

Pope Francis may very well have adopted at least parts of St. Pius V’s pontificate for his own program of reform. If so, this means that Francis is embarking upon a reform effort much deeper and broader than we have seen at least since St. Pius X and possibly since St. Pius V.  His Argentinian Jesuit background can, I think,  tell us much more about which aspects he will be concentrating on, but that is for another time.  In the meantime, I think we all must read closely this new encyclical when it appears.  I suspect that we are going to be asked to ponder the real meaning of poverty and how this relates to the radical nature of Christianity.  All of this will be necessary for the new evangelization.  I get the sense that Francis is going to begin to teach us how the failure of Catholics to understand and live an authentic poverty is the source of many of our problems in the Church and in the world.  Oh yeah, St. Pius V is also credited with having said that all of the problems in the world are due to lukewarm Catholics…

Dr. Delaney is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, Texas.  He previously wrote for the now defunct Cosmos-Liturgy-Sex blog.