POPE FRANCIS: Man Of God And Man Of The People

| by Fr. Vimal Tirimanna, CSsR

( January 14, 2015, Rome, Sri Lanka Guardian) It was 17th October 2014. The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Family which attracted so much of world attention was about to be wound up. It being a non-working day for the Synod, most of the Asian bishop-participants of the Synod were having their special Central Committee (CC) meeting of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) at the Filippino embassy attached to the Vatican, just a few steps away from Casa di Santa Marta in the Vatican where Pope Francis lives. I too had the privilege of being present at that meeting as the specially appointed secretary to keep the minutes of that particular meeting. All of us were informed beforehand that in spite of his very busy schedule that particular week (with the Synod reaching its Conclusion the following day, with the Beatification of Pope Paul VI two days thereafter, and with so many bishops from all over the world having appointments with him, one after the other,...etc.), Pope Francis had agreed to give a special brief audience for the CC participants, at 10 am at Casa di Santa Marta.

 It was organized thanks to the good offices of Antonio Luis Cardinal Tagle of Manila. So, the idea was to adjourn the special CC meeting around 9.55 am, and then, walk up for the special papal audience.However, as the CC meeting was well into its first hour, suddenly the hand phone of Oswald Cardinal Gracias of Mumbai (who was presiding over the meeting) rang. It was around 9.45 am, and some of us who were seated closer to Cardinal Gracias could hear the voice at the other end of the line saying in Italian: "Sua Eminenza,...Papa sta giá aspettando per voi. Sbrigatevi per favore!" (‘Your Eminence,...the Pope is already waiting for you! Please hurry up!’). The CC meeting was abruptly suspended and all of us rushed to Casa di Santa Marta within just five minutes. And there His Holiness was indeed waiting at the very entrance of Casa di Santa Marta with a broad smile on his face. As we entered, the Pope cordially welcomed each of us with a warm shake-hand, as if each of us mattered to him so much! Then, he informally spoke about the mission of evangelization in Asia and its importance, and assured his closeness and prayers for all the Churches in Asia in fulfilling their mission. He reminded us that he had already been to Asia (to Korea just the previous month) and also that he would soon be going to Asia again: to Sri Lanka and to the Philippines, and said he was looking forward to those trips eagerly. At the request of Cardinal Gracias (President of the FABC), the Pope then imparted his Apostolic Blessing on all of us gathered there and on the different Churches in Asia that were represented. Since he had to meet the visiting Prime Minister of Korea, immediately thereafter, he bade good bye, again greeting each of us with a warm shakehand and a broad smile.

In my life thus far, I had been to many audiences and meetings with both ecclesiastical and civil dignitaries in many parts of the world, but I must say with all sincerity that at none of those precious moments of my life had the dignitaries concerned been so much at ease, so informal, so human, as Pope Francis was during this particular audience. To begin with, there were no airs put on, nor were there those empty (and at times ridiculous!) formalities that one normally encounters on such occasions. Here was Pope Francis, the Universal Visible Shepherd of the Church, the Vicar of Christ on earth, meeting the shepherds of the local churches and those who were helping them. It was simply a meeting of a human person with other human persons, but with this unique difference: by his very simple, sincere and informal conduct, the Pope not only showed what a great personality he is, but also automatically earned respect for himself as a person. Yes, he did not demand respect by virtue of his office as Pope, but earned it through his very human personality, warmth and conduct!Only those who are real men of God and those who have healthy personalities with a sane self-image could afford to be so, and that's exactly what Pope Fracis is! Thousands upon thousands of persons who had met him as Pope during the past 20 months or so, have shared the same personal experience, and it is this very experience that has taken the world by storm, ever since he was elected as the Successor of St.Peter in March 2013.

It is no exaggeration to say that his very personality has put the Church not only back on the right track of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but also back on the secular international scene.Commentators are more or less unanimous that in the history of the Church there has never been a Pope so popular as this Pope is.In addition to what I mentioned above, they give a few more other reasons for such unprecedented popularity: his peculiarly people-orientedness, his down-to-earth realistic approach to Church and world issues, his love for the poor and the marginalized (not only in words as many leaders do today, but in his very deeds), his courage to call a spade a spade without any sense of hypocirtical diplomacy and his determination to continue the reforms of the Second Vatican Council as willed by the world-wide episcopate of the Catholic Church.All these characteristics were more than visible in his celebrated Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium in written form (issued in November 2013), and at the recently concluded Extraordinary Synod in the form of action. However, in order to illsutrate what each of the above-mentioned reasons amount to, I will discuss each of them briefly under the following sub-headings:

A Pope of the People

Jesus Christ came to liberate people from the evil ways and to show them the right path to walk. He established his Church to continue that liberation work down through the ages. He appointed St.Peter as his visible representative here on earth, and that’s what all the Successors of Peter (Bishops of Rome) are expected to be. They are first and foremost to be at the people’s side, and then, lead them along the way that Jesus has already shown, just as a good shepherd leads his sheep. Pope Francis who as the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires used to travel daily by bus and do his own cooking, often has been insisting that bishops and priests all over the world as shepherds of the flock (the sheep) of Jesus Christ need to be so close to them (the sheep) in such a way that they familiarize themselves with them,be in solidarity with them, not above them.To put it in his famous words, he wants them to get "the smell of the sheep" (l'odore delle pecore), by going into the sheepfold, being with the sheep, sharing their joys and sorrows, rather than sitting in comfortable places or even inside the sanctuary of the church.In his very first visit to the Cathedral of San Rufino,Asssi, on 4th October 2013, in a memorable speech he expressed exactly the same sentiments colourfully when he said:

"This, I have been repeatedly saying: to walk with our people, at times in front of them, at times in their midst and at times behind them: in front of them, to guide the community; in the midst of them, to encourage and sustain them; behind them, to keep them together in unity so that no one should be too far behind; and also for another reason: to have ‘the smell’ (ilfiuto) of the people, to have their sense, because people normally have the sense for new ways to walk; they have the sense of the faith which theologians call ‘sensusfidei’."

The Pope’s oft-repeated call urging bishops and priests to reach out to people is vividly expressed also in EvangeliiGaudium No:49 where he repeats what he has been already telling the priests of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires when he was the Archbishop there: "I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security"!

A Down-to-Earth Realistic Approach

What has endeared this Pope to most of the people around the world (even among non-Catholics) is his down-to-earth approach to the Church and world issues. His concern to find some concrete pastoral solutions to those who are in difficult marriage and family situations (by calling the two Synods, one of which just ended in Rome) without denying the Church's cherished teachings, is a clear example of this. That is to say, he is more interested in arriving at where concrete, real human persons live in the world and finding ways of showing them that the gospel of Jesus is indeed "good" news rather than endlessly repeating Church's teachings in an abstract way that goes above and beyond the real people of this world! This was exactly the style of Jesus, too, who spoke and worked among real people of this world, in their own concrete life situations.

Our present Pope is the only Successor of Peter to choose the name Francis, after St.Francis of Assisi, the great friend of the poor who first founded a religious congregation that was to earn its own living by begging (mendicanti). In fact, one of the main characteristics that defines Pope Francis is his love for the poor and the marginalized, a clear trait of a real man of God. It is almost impossible to read any of his discourses or homilies without finding a reference to them, always in their favour. Even in his papal audiences, he always gives a special place to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and makes it a point to break all formal/security arrangements and reach out to them and have a word with them, often a word of encouragement and prayer that often end in a blessing. After becoming Pope, he refused to live in the magnificent Apostolic Papal Palace in the Vatican, the official residence of Popes, and opted to live at Casa di Santa Marta. Immediately after his assuming of office as Pope, one of the first things he did was to make one of the papal ceremonial liturgists an Archbishop, and put him in charge of doing charity to the poor in Rome. This writer personally heard from Arcbishop Konrad Krajewske himself that the Pope told him in plain language: "Don’t be wasting your precious time hanging around me for all these liturgical, ceremonial rubrics, but go.... and attend to the poor around us here in Rome, on behalf of me and the Church"! It is now public knowledge that the gifts the Pope receives often end up with the poor through Archbishop Krajewske's pastoral activities in Rome.

Calling a Spade a Spade!

Another clear characteristic of this Pope is his boldness to proclaim the gospel values, and as he often says, to do so with joy and with humour – after all, it is a gospel of joy, not a gospel of anxiety or worry that imparts on people unbearable burdens! Just as Jesus, the prophet, was in his day, our present Pope has no time for diplomacy and duplicity. Since he has nothing to hide or no need to hoodwink others, he is honest to himself, and expresses his convictions in his words and deeds without any inhibition whatsoever. There is no hypocrisy in him, and the world (irrespective of religious differences) has clearly seen this in Pope Francis, and respects him for that.Only a God-fearing, truthful and convinced person could afford do this, and that is what Pope Francis is!

Continuing the Spirit of the Second Vatican Council

This, to me is the greatest contribution this Pope is making for our Church, and history will not forget his unique role in bringing back to the Church that spirit of the Early Church which the Second Vatican Council tried to revive. His sincere intention not to govern the Church on his own, unilaterally and dictatorially, but together with the College of Bishops, is a clear illustration of this. After all, our Catholic faith tells us that Jesus entrusted his authority not just to St.Peter alone, but to the Twelve Apostles headed by Peter. One of Pope Francis' efforts to revive and re-live this genuine eccleastical spirit is his appointment of Eight Cardinals representing all the continents of the world as a primary group of advisers to him in making basic Church reforms, beginning with the Vatican Curia (This group of Cardinals was later expanded to nine members, now known as G-9). Anyone who reads his one and only Apostolic Exhortation to-date, Evangelii Gaudium (1913) will be able to see how the Pope yearns to re-introduce that spirit (the spirit of Collegiality) to the Church life all over the world. Moreover, the recent Synod itself (which was the first under this papacy) is a clear re-enactment of this spirit which was so evident in the Second Vatican Council, itself. In his very opening speech to this Synod comprising bishop-representatives from all over the world, Pope Francis encouraged them to speak freely. He stressed that all must speak clearly with freedom to say what the Holy Spirit prompts them to say; he also wanted them to listen to each other with humility and openess. "Speaking clearly with frankness and listening with humility are the keys to collegiality", he said. The Pope's aim was not to impose his own will on the Church according to his own whims and fancies (though he as Pope, has all the authority to do so), but to arrive at discerning and understanding what the Spirit was telling the Church as a whole. He wished to exercise his responsibility as the Successor of Peter, but together with the College of Bishops, and not in isolation, in his own right, so that the true voice of the Holy Spirit (promised by Jesus to the Church) could be clearly heard, discerned and listened to. That is precisely why he reassured his brother-bishops: "Have no fear, as this is done with Peter and under Peter"! Cardinal Raymond Burke of the USA later told the reporters that there has been no other Synod that he knew of in recent times that assured the freedom of expression, as this particular Synod. This "new" attitude of enhanced collegiality of bishops is surely a recovery of what the Second Vatican Council taught with regard to the exercising of the Church's supreme authority to teach in and through the Successor of Peter in communion with the College of Bishops (cfr.,Lumen Gentium, Nos:22,23). As a matter of fact, Vatcian II did not invent such collegiality in teaching, but re-discovered what was already there in our Catholic tradition from the earliest times.

Reforming the Vatican Curial Bureaucracy

From the very first moment of his election, Pope Francis has made no secret of his aversion to exaggerated formalities. When he appeared on the balcony of St.Peter’s Basilica, immediately after his election as 266th Pope, instead of using the customary formula in Latin of greeting the thousands of people gathered there at St.Peter’s Square, he simply said in Italian "Buona Sera"! (Good Evening!). The new Pope’s informal way of doing things was further seen by the whole worldthat evening when instead of first imparting the customary blessing of the new Pope, he himself inclined in front of the people gathered there asking them to pray for God’s blessings on him to fulfill his duties as the Bishop of Rome. Only those who were there that memorable evening would nostalgically remember what a thrilling moment it was when the entire piazza of St.Peter’s went into pin-drop silence to pray for the new Pope. An Anglican woman bishop-friend of mine from Canada, Bp. Linda Nicholls of Toronto told me later that she was so fortunate to be there that evening and it was surely a Godly-experience for her, though she was non-Catholic.

His informal ways of breaking rank and file in public gatherings has bothered not only his security personnel but also those who love formalities, just as those who held on to formalities and legalities felt uneasy with Jesus in his day. Consequently, those who try to equate the good news of Jesus Christ to mere formalities, archaic rituals and doctrines alone, are obviously not that happy with this Pope. Those who wish to continue the status quo of the imperial Roman Church of a by-gone era, those who wish to feel more important than what they really are (through their rank and file in the institutional Church), those who wish to be always above the ordinary lay faithful,...etc. are really threatened by the words and lifestyle of Pope Francis. Here in Rome, many are the bishops who had been saying openly that they had to discard their gold and silver pectoral crosses simply because the present Pope himself shuns them, and so they feel it odd to be adorned by them when the Pope himself is so simple and avoids using them! They now wear simple wooden crosses! But then, due to their human nature, some ecclesiastic officials not only love such people-distancing practices but they seem to live only for them! The Pope himself has been often referring critically to such pastors in the Church and has been openly condemning those who are into what he calls 'careerism'.For most of them, Francis is a living threat, especially for their ecclesiastical careers which they cherish so much. As such, our present Pope has some ‘enemies’even within the very Roman Catholic Church!The Pope’s traditional Christmas discourse to the Vatican Curia last 22nd December, hardly two weeks ago, where he enumerated boldly and prophetically what he called the 15 "Diseases" that affect the Curia officials would surely have infuriated more Church officials, and added more to the list of those who oppose him from within the Church. Now it is no secret that his efforts to clean the institutional Church from those who thrive on and get puffed up with archaic dogmatism, careerism and diplomacy, have angered some influential top hierarchical members even within the Vatican, as the Pope himself has indicated in some of his interviews with the media. Just last month (8 December 2014), the Argentinian newspaper, La Nacion published a live interview with the Pope in which he acknowledged such opposition to him even within the Vatican Curia.But in his typical style he added that this is something of "a good sign because to get things out into the open is very healthy!" In other words, he seems to be not disturbed at all, as he goes on with his cool but well-thought out reforms within the Vatican itself, as wished by a vast majority of the College of Cardinals that gathered in the Conclave to elect him hardly two years ago.


The present writer, as a loyal Catholic priest has always respected Popes because he firmly believes that each and every Pope is indeed the Vicar of Christ, the Successor of Peter, no matter what each Pope's personal human weaknesses may had been. However, with the election of Pope Francis he is more than convinced now that the Holy Spirit is really active in looking after the flock of Christ, as Jesus himself promised. Pope Francis is surely someone who is worthy of being literally the Vicar (the representative) of Christ here on earth because whoever sees him surely ought to see who Jesus Christ is.

Out of so many Asian countries, he chose Sri Lanka for a papal visit (overlooking even such a giant of a nation like India!). So, all of us Sri Lankans (especially the Catholics) should go out of our way not only to welcome this charismatic Pope but also to pray for him daily. Anyone who carefully scrutinizes his words either when he meets people (personally or in groups) or when he ends his discourses, will surely notice his one and only request: "please pray for me"! Not only as the Vicar of Christ in general, but as this particular Vicar of Christ who is in the midst of so many contemporary challenges (both within and without the Church), Pope Francis surely deserves our daily prayers! Welcome to Sri Lanka dear Pope Francis!