Here’s a taste of a piece I wrote for St. Anthony Messenger in March:
On May 11, 2019, a man you have probably never heard of, Konrad Krajewski, climbed down a manhole and walked through the sewers of Rome to restore the power supply to a disused, Italian state-owned property where many homeless persons had been living. He explained: “I intervened personally last night to turn back on the meters. It was a desperate gesture. There were over 400 people without electricity, families with children.”
Is Krajewski some sort of Marvel superhero wannabe? No, he is the almoner of the Office of Papal Charities, the man in charge of overseeing the works of mercy on behalf of the Holy Father. He is also, for the first time in the Church’s history, an almoner who has been raised to the office of cardinal. But instead of the red silk, lace, and finery we often associate with this office, he works among and for the least of these. In addition to crawling through sewers to help the poor, he has also been sent into active war zones in Ukraine to bring relief to the miserable, as well as doing many other unglamorous things for those on the margins.
And that is a fitting image to summarize the implementation of the Church’s teaching that is being attempted by one of the most striking, creative, and remarkable popes in history: Pope Francis.
A New Approach
Pope Francis’ election in March 2013 immediately signaled a new approach to the ancient faith with an emphasis on being doers of the word and not merely hearers. Despite complaints of critics that he is “confusing,” the reality is that his entire papacy has been remarkably consistent and can easily be summed up by a single passage of Scripture: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Lk 4:18). Understand this, and you understand the entire pontificate of Pope Francis: He is about evangelization and care for the least ones.
His regnal name was the first clue. Like so much else in his pontificate, it reaches back into the treasury of the Church’s tradition and deploys it in a new way to bring good news to the poor. Rather than take a previous papal name, he took the name of a saint famous for his disdain of mammon, his eagerness to care for those nobody else cared about, and his zeal for preaching the Gospel to anybody who would listen—even birds!
Pope Francis’ appearance on the balcony over St. Peter’s Square, shorn of all papal finery except his simple white cassock, was another sign of things to come, for both good and ill. Reactionaries who literally deny the reality of the Holocaust attacked him online within minutes of his election, establishing a pattern that continues to this day.
But Pope Francis has continued his mission to make the Church a “poor Church for the poor” and a Church of active, energetic evangelization through deeds as much as, or more than, words. No small part of this comes directly from his background. Having spent years working and living among the desperately poor in Argentina, as well as under a brutal dictatorship, Pope Francis has seen firsthand not only the oppression of the poor, but also how the policies of industrialized nations have affected politics in developing nations. He has looked down the gun barrel from the receiving end and knows where glib rhetoric about trickle-down economies and neofascist strongman chatter lead.
Pope Francis has also experienced the joy and generosity the Gospel inspires among those who often have the least to share in terms of material goods. One of his earliest letters was “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), in which he frankly called the Church out on our perennial habit of navel-gazing and mutually destructive squabbles over liturgical niceties, money, and power, and back to its primal mission of bearing witness to Jesus Christ. Moreover, he insisted that such witness be a matter not merely of words but also of lives lived sacrificially for marginalized people.
He warned of “those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying (94).”
And he has lived this out. Rather than guard a fortress or curate a museum, Pope Francis has left the fortress with gusto and gone out into the highways and byways to bring the love of Christ to those on the margins. He has embraced all sorts of people in the disenfranchised corners of humanity, washing the feet of prisoners, eating supper with the homeless, and serving people in need. His willingness to welcome, eat with, visit, and listen to the vast diversity of the human race has, as with Jesus, both provoked appreciation and fired intense dislike.