The world is now seeing what a devout Catholic pastor of souls from Argentina looks like in the person of our current Holy Father, Pope Francis. His quiet reserve, his deep prayerfulness and spirituality, his humility and charity, his simple and frugal lifestyle, his doctrinal orthodoxy, his liturgical reverence, and especially his personal pastoral style and his exceptional talent as a preacher and communicator, all remind me of Father Abel, the saintly Argentinian pastor of my childhood and early teen years at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Guadalupe, California. A good deal of prayer, careful study, and meditation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit went into the preparation of each of his daily morning Mass homilies on the Scripture readings. Despite his unassuming exterior, Father Abel was quite erudite, well versed in Catholic doctrine and theology and the Fathers and Doctors of the Church as well as in biblical history and exegesis. Moreover, he was in tune with where Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger were leading the Church at the dawn of the Third Millennium. As well as a man of deep prayer and high education, Father Abel was a good teacher. His daily Mass homilies, which often focused on three basic “elements,” were simple and direct, yet profound and rich in theological insights – much like those of Pope Francis. They were always delivered slowly and carefully, so that we could grasp each word and idea he was presenting to us, and he would make direct eye contact with each of his listeners as he spoke, just as Pope Francis does. And, best of all, these homilies always came straight from his head and his heart, without the aid of a prepared text – just like the daily Mass homilies of Pope Francis.
Father Abel’s homilies illuminated the Scriptures and made them come alive for us simple lay people. He was a true pastor, who fed us spiritually with the Word of God and the sacraments of the Church and who inspired us to live our Christian faith by his example of a holy life. Now Pope Francis – another Argentinian Catholic pastor of souls – is doing the same thing as shepherd of his little flock at the Domus Sanctha Marthae, as the Bishop of Rome, and as the Supreme Pastor of the Universal Church. Like his patron, Saint Francis of Assisi, he is a reformer, called by God to rebuild His crumbling Church in a corrupt and materialistic age of radical secularism. He is carrying out this mission of reform quite simply and effectively by courageously preaching and authentically living the full truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By his clear teaching and personal example of humble service, he is returning the Church to the roots of its faith and to the essence of the Gospel message.
From his earliest words and actions as the Successor of Saint Peter, this man has made it clear that he has come to serve, not to be served. By humbly referring to himself as “the Bishop of Rome” rather than as “the Pope,” he indicated that he is not interested in using the power of the papacy to control and dominate others for his own self-aggrandizement – as some arrogant and corrupt pontiffs in Church history have unfortunately done, leading to divisions, schisms, and wars. Rather, Pope Francis sees his office as a ministry of loving service to Christ’s faithful, whose task as Bishop of Rome is to “preside over all the churches in charity” and thus keep them united in the one true faith of Christ. This simple and humble approach to the papacy is in keeping with the desires for papal reform and Christian unity expressed by Blessed John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May All Be One). Pope Francis’ profound humility and charity are having a remarkably strong positive effect on leaders of the Orthodox churches, which have been separated from full communion with Rome since 1054. His papal inauguration Mass was the first in nearly a millennium to be attended by the Patriarch of Constantinople. That highly significant gesture was a clear sign that, under the influence of Pope Francis, the Orthodox Churches have now begun moving seriously toward full reunion with the Church of Rome. After all, it was not so much doctrinal disagreements and cultural differences that divided the Eastern and Western Churches, but rather the imperial, domineering attitude of certain corrupt and power-hungry Popes in the early Middle Ages that led to the Great Schism. Just as a lack of charity by certain Popes divided the Churches, the charity of Pope Francis is helping to reunite them and heal the old wounds of division.
The humble Christian attitude and warm personal approach of Pope Francis have not only endeared him to his fellow Catholics and to other Christians, but have also drawn the admiration and respect of people of goodwill throughout the modern secular world. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon praised him as “a man of peace and purpose” and “a voice for the voiceless.” He has been nominated “Man of the Year” by Vanity Fair magazine. “Pope Francis is the best news for the Catholic Church in centuries,” declared singer Elton John in a recent interview. “On his own, this man has succeeded in bringing people back to Christ’s teachings… Non-Catholics like me rise to their feet to applaud the humility of every gesture of his… Francis is a miracle of humility in an age of vanity.” And Italian atheist Giorgio Faletti admitted that “Jorge Mario Bergoglio seemed to me immediately a great communicator, a person that by his face inspires that goodness that the representative of Catholics in the world must inspire, a man who has the qualities to repair with his figure all the scandals that recently have damaged the image of the Vatican and what it represents.”
In his formally prepared speeches and addresses as well as in his extemporaneous daily Mass homilies in the Domus Sanctha Marthae chapel, Pope Francis courageously preaches the full truth of Christ’s Gospel, without minimizing or glossing over difficult or controversial areas. In his first homily as Pope given in the Sistine Chapel, he urged the Church not to reject the cross: “When we journey without the cross… we are not disciples of the Lord.” In the homily at his installation Mass, Pope Francis reminded us of our basic human responsibility to protect all of God’s creation, including human life and the natural environment, for the benefit of all. In his first address to the Holy See’s diplomatic corps, he drew attention to “the spiritual poverty of our time” manifested in what his predecessor Benedict XVI used to call “the ‘tyranny of relativism’,” and stated: “Francis of Assisi tells us we should work to build peace. But there is no true peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.” In line with his two predecessors, Pope Francis has also criticized the injustice and inhumanity of the current global economic system that allows a few to profit enormously at the expense of many. He has condemned “the dictatorship of a nameless, faceless economy” and pointed out that we have fallen into a “globalized indifference” that has robbed us of the ability to sympathize with our suffering brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. Through these and many other homilies and addresses, Pope Francis is shaking us Christians out of our comfortable complacency and challenging us to live the Gospel in such a total, radical and authentic way that it completely changes our lives and transforms the modern world.
In his last and greatest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed: “To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are… exacting and indispensable forms of charity.” As the 265th Successor of Saint Peter, Pope Francis is now carrying on this essential mission of Christian charity. By his words and example, he is preaching the truth that will set us free, the truth that has the power to save humanity from self-destruction. And, slowly but surely, he is drawing the modern secularized world back to Christ. Pope Francis has become more than just the leader of the Catholic Church; he has become the pastor of the world.
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