Five years of Pope Francis: leading the church ahead or astray? | Faith Matters


Popular author Malcolm Gladwell would definitely categorize Pope Francis as an outlier. The first pope from the Southern Hemisphere, Francis is reforming the papacy and the church from the outside in. He draws strongly from his experience in Buenos Aires, living and ministering among the poor.

An excellent new work, “Pope Francis and the Theology of the People,” captures Francis’ unique form of liberation theology.

“Our people have soul, and because we can speak of the soul of a people, we can speak of a hermeneutic, a way of seeing a reality, a consciousness,” the future pope, Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, said back in 1999.

Francis’ proximity to mostly poor people has given him insights into how we should address the needs of the poor not as statistics but as the embodiment of the desire to improve and grow in the church. He has parlayed those experiences into a reform of the church that is not gaining too much traction because many people are unsure how to live it.

Five years into Francis’ papacy this week, “the vast majority of U.S. Catholics continue to have a favorable opinion of the Argentinian pontiff, and most say he represents a major – and positive – change for the Roman Catholic Church,” a new Pew Research Center survey finds.

But, it continues, “signs of growing discontent with Francis among Catholics on the political right, with increasing shares of Catholic Republicans saying they view Francis unfavorably and that they think he is too liberal and naïve.”

That perception is not accurate, though it is understandable when even cardinals, archbishops and bishops openly question his teachings.

Francis’ daily homilies at Mass in the chapel of the St. Martha’s Guesthouse in Vatican City have been scrutinized the way President Trump’s tweets captivate the media and the world. The comparison ends there because Francis is laying out insights into the way the church needs to change to not only win back the lost but also to attract new followers among the young who are tuning out.

The pope has inspired a novel book, “A Pope Francis Lexicon,” in which some 50 clerics, scholars and lay leaders address his key concerns. And none is more prominent than our own archbishop, Joseph Cardinal Tobin, commenting on “careerism.”

“For Francis, careerism is an understanding of one’s position in the church in terms of what one can obtain, rather than what one can give,” Tobin writes.

Francis goes on to call careerism “a leprosy.”

Tobin took the risk of publicly supporting U.S. women religious when the Vatican, under Pope Benedict, investigated them. He lost his high position in the curia and was banished to Indianapolis. Today, he’s a cardinal and rewarded with Newark – now seen as a plum.

Other intriguing chapter titles are, “Conscience,” “Curia,” “Gossip,” “Field hospital,” “Service” and “Women.” The last seems a weak point for Francis, who has commissioned a study of whether women can be ordained as deacons, for which there is ample evidence in the early church.

But the pope worries about an overly clericalized church and wants women’s gifts to be appreciated for who they are. The world, however, sees the church’s failure to give women leadership roles as an injustice to be corrected. I would add that the more women we lose, the more families we lose.

Francis has raised expectations that he is the pope to rectify this matter. I hope he does.

In five years, Francis has set a foundation for a new way of being church. It may not be what some of the hierarchy want, but it is certainly what the church needs. Ad multo annos, Papa Francisco!

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Rev. Alexander Santora is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph, 400 Willow Ave., Hoboken, 07030, FAX: 201-659-5833; Email:; Twitter: @padrehoboken.

Details …

“A Pope Francis Lexicon,” edited by Joshua J. McElwee and Cindy Wooden, Liturgical Press, 2017; $24.95.

“Morning Homilies IV,” by Pope Francis, Orbis Books, 2016.

“Pope Francis and the Theology of the People,” by Rafael Luciani, Orbis Books, 2017; $28.


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