It was a brief greeting to former colleagues. But if you read Pope Francis recent letter to the Argentine bishops conference closely, you get a glimpse of the man, his convictions, and his vision.
First, the man: Jorge Mario Bergoglio has remained very much himself, rather than adopting what some might deem the pontifical style. Any pope who can write his former colleagues in these terms”Dear Brothers: I am sending these lines of greeting and also to excuse myself for being unable to attend due to commitments assumed recently (sounds good?)”is a man at home in his own skin, and one likely to remain that way.
Then, the convictions: Pope Francis believes that the Church in Latin America took a decisive step toward a new future in 2007. Then, at the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, held at Aparecida in Brazil, the leaders of the Church moved far beyond the kept Catholicism of the past”the Catholicism that was kept by legal establishment or, more recently, cultural habit”and embraced a robustly Evangelical Catholicism in which, as the pope wrote, the whole of ministry (is) in a missionary key.
The move from kept Catholicism to Evangelical Catholicism is for everyone, the pope seems convinced. Kept Catholicism has no future anywhere, and not just because of aggressive secularism and other corrosive cultural acids. Kept Catholicism has no future because it doesnt merit a future: or, as the pope put it to his former colleagues, a Church that does not go out, sooner or later gets sick in the hothouse atmosphere of its own self-absorption, which Francis has also called self-referentiality.
When the Church is about itself, rather than the gospel and the invitation to friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ, the Church betrays the gospel and the Lord. How? The self-referential Church falls victim to a kind of narcissism that leads to spiritual worldliness and to sophisticated clericalism, which in turn are obstacles to what the bishops at Aparecida called the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.
That joy, Pope Francis quickly added, is many times united to the Cross. But the joy that comes from the embrace of the Cross helps the ordained ministers of the Church to be each day more fruitful, spending ourselves and unraveling ourselves in the service of the holy faithful people of God. And if the pastors are seen to pick up the Cross and live joyfully in the embrace of the Crucified and Risen Lord, the people of the Church will find the courage to do the same: thus the entire Body of Christ becomes a powerful witness to the truth that it is in self-giving, not self-assertion, that we find happiness.
As for the popes vision, Francis seems willing, even eager, to lead a Church that takes risks in boldly proclaiming the gospel. It is true, he wrote the bishops of Argentina, that something can happen to a Church that goes out, just as things can happen to someone who leaves the safety of home: Accidents can happen. But I wish to say to you frankly, the pope continued, that I prefer a thousand times an injured Church than a sick Church, a risk-taking Church to a Church palsied by self-absorption. Thus the vision toward which this pope from the end of the earth is calling the entire Church: all Christ, all gospel, all mission, all the time.
The Bishop of Rome as Christian radical is going to take some getting used to. Expect serious disorientation in those ideological redoubts where the old battles over the now-superseded Church of the Counter-Reformation remain all-consuming (e.g., the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Lefebvrists). Some may find it hard to reconcile Christian radicalism with orthodoxy. But, as I argue in Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church , thats precisely what orthodoxy is: the adventure of radical conversion ordered to mission. The 266th Bishop of Rome would seem to agree.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washingtons Ethics and Public Policy Center. His previous On the Square articles can be found here .
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?