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Summarizing the key features of the pontificate of Francis as it has unfolded up to now would be an arduous task. Allow me to signal a few traits that emerge in the essays gathered in this volume.
The pontificate of Francis has been prophetic. This in the sense Yves Congar describes as being made by someone who “confers on the movement of time its true relationship with the design of God.” Pope Francis is a pope of the Second Vatican Council, not in the sense that he repeats it and defends it, but in the sense that he appreciates the intimate value of reading the Gospel at work today, or reading the Gospel in the light of contemporary experience.
This is certainly a pontificate of encounter. Pope Francis is not a man commanding alone. He is fully aware of being a bishop with his people. The “culture of encounter” and of nearness develop a management of authority whereby the more you are perceived as distant the less authority you have. In this sense, the pope challenges the common perception of authority that is articulated in terms of separation. This culture has its basis in the availability to receive (and not only to give). And for Bergoglio, dialogue substantially means doing something together.
His is a dramatic pontificate. This drama comes from St. Ignatius of Loyola and his meditation on the two banners. Ignatius describes a battlefield where “Christ, our high captain and lord” comes up against “Lucifer, mortal enemy of our human nature.” For Bergoglio Christian life is a battle where we are always consoled by the certainty that the Lord has the final word on the life of the world. The Church is the hospital on the battlefield.
It is also a pontificate of discernment, which is an interior stance that pushes us to open ourselves up to finding God wherever God chooses to be found, and not only within well-defined perimeters. Above all, Francis does not fear the ambiguity of life; he faces it with courage. Our actions and decisions are to be deeply rooted and must be accompanied by a reading of the signs of the times that is attentive, meditative and prayerful. These signs are everywhere: be it a great event or the letter of a simple member of the faithful.
His is also a pontificate of incomplete thought, of “open thought.” This means he doesn’t seem to have a “project,” that is, a theoretical and abstract idea to apply to history. Rather he has a “plan,” that is, a lived spiritual experience which takes shape step by step and becomes concrete and leads to action. This is not an a priori vision, which refers to ideas and concepts, but an experience that refers to “times, places and persons,” as Ignatius of Loyola asks, and so not to ideological abstractions. Hence, interior vision is not imposed on history seeking to organize it according to its own parameters, but it dialogues with reality, it inserts itself into the history of humanity, it takes place in time. The road that it tries to complete is for him truly open, and it rejects easy conclusions; it is not a road map written in advance. The road unfolds as you go along.
In this sense, Francis offers a pontificate of tension between spirit and institution. There is for him always a dialectic tension in the Church, which is “a people of pilgrims and evangelizers, transcending any institutional expression, however necessary” (Evangelii Gaudium, 111).
Finally, this is a pontificate of borders and challenges. His model is the meeting of Jesus with the disciples on the way to Emmaus. He asks pastors to accompany the people by walking alongside them when they enter into the night, drifting alone without a goal, as he said to the bishops of Brazil last July 27. The Church is not just a “light house,” it is also a “candle” that walks with people, giving them light sometimes in front, sometimes in the middle and sometimes at the back to ensure that no one is left behind. So the Church is “on the road” callejera: living and working along the pathways of the world.
We trust these pages will help the reader perceive the basic traits we have quickly described and appreciate their roots so as to be able to live more fully the ecclesial experience of the Francis years.
Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ
Director of La Civiltà Cattolica