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The inside low-down on Pope Francis


As Pope Francis reaches ten years in office he continues to surprise by doing and saying the unexpected. This puzzles and sometimes confounds people who observe him. Part of this unpredictability, no doubt, is partly due to his mercurial temperament. But it also  reflects the fact that observers place him in a framework that is not his own. He is measured by polarities such as liberal and conservative, democratic and authoritarian, innovative and traditional, revolutionary and reactionary. When evaluating his actions, however, the readings on these dials jump about playfully. 

For a steadier reading of Pope Francis we need to recognise that the framework that shapes his actions and words is not derived from contemporary culture but from Christian faith. We need therefore first to enter this world imaginatively from within before analysing the Pope’s intentions and actions. In this context faith refers not simply to the collection of things that people believe to be true but to the operative view of the world that shapes their vision of the world and behaviour within it. It is a living faith.    

Although Christian faith coincides with Western cultural assumptions at many points, it is quite countercultural. In broad outline it involves belief in a personal God, ultimately responsible for the universe, who values and loves each human being.  A God who is prayed to. God loves the world enough to join it in Jesus, to share our human experience, and to reconcile us to God and to one another. Jesus’ mission to bring people to God ended in rejection and in a tortured death, nailed to a wooden cross. The cost of the mission marks the depth of human alienation. God then raised Jesus from the dead as the beginning of a transformed humanity opened through faith in Jesus. Those who believed were gathered together into the Church as witnesses to Christ by following Jesus’ way. The Spirit is at work in the Church in discerning what faith and the Christian way of life involve.

Those for whom this is not a living faith will no doubt dismiss many of its elements as mythical, incoherent and even offensive. Christians will argue that they are reasonable. They certainly form a lens for looking at the world in a way that differs from that of people who do not share it. Christians’ personal vision of the world will differ depending on the weight that they put on different elements of faith. Some will emphasise, for example, the presence of God in nature, others the presence of the risen Christ in the Church, others the life of Jesus in the Gospels. A living faith is like a mobile hanging from a ceiling where different weights placed on the arms makes subtle differences to the whole.

Placing different emphasis on the many elements of faith, however, is different from adopting a version that excludes such elements of faith as the reality and love of God, the reality of a world beyond the empirical, the unity of divine and human in Jesus, the personal and social disaster of sin and the amazing joy of forgiveness and the promise of a transformed world, or the presence of Christ in the Church and its life. Excluding such elements is like cutting off the arm of a mobile – the result is a mess.

 Underlying all these differences lies the mystery of God’s love shown in the tortured death at human hands of God’s Son. In any expression of Christian faith this mystery must be central in reflecting on God, our human condition and the mission of the Church.


'Pope Francis is consistent in holding to the tradition while at the same time refusing to judge those who do not live by the positions it upholds.'


Pope Francis expressed his personal appropriation of Christian faith in the motto he chose when made a Bishop and later Pope: miserando atque eligendo. It comes from a sermon of St Bede in which he describes Jesus’ calling of Matthew, a hated tax collector – a stand-over merchant for the Roman occupation. Bede writes, ‘Jesus gazed at the tax-collector, and because in his gaze is compassion and calling, he says to him, “Follow me”’. The motto brings together the Pope’s sense of being a sinner looked on by Jesus with compassion and so consequently being called to follow him in witnessing to God’s love.

That underlies his vision of the Church as sinners called to follow Jesus’ way in going out to a world in need of compassion. It was expressed performatively in his first gestures after being named Pope of dressing simply, asking the crowd to pray for him, and catching a bus to pay for his accommodation. It was expressed also in the large gestures which took him to Lampedusa to grieve for refugees who had died seeking asylum by sea and to plead with governments to give them hospitality, took him to a gaol to wash the feet of young prisoners who included a young Muslim woman, took him on journeys to impoverished and conflicted nations, led him to invest himself so deeply and personally in joining the movement to address climate change, led him to call a Synod of Bishops from the exploited Amazon region, and encouraged him to give impromptu press conferences in which he urged acceptance of people who are gay.

His gestures and words sometimes coincide with progressive values, sometimes depart from them, but are not motivated by them. For him they are about witnessing to God’s relationship to the world shown in Jesus. If he misreads a situation, acts hastily or gets his words wrong, he is not fussed – what else would you expect of a sinner called to follow Jesus? He apologises, clarifies and picks up the pieces.

The same vision guides his vision of the Church expressed in exhortation and administration. It is of a Church that is not self-focused on its inner life, not preoccupied with looking good rather than doing good, but one that goes out to people on the margins of faith to witness to God’s mercy. He began by addressing the crucial role of clergy. They are not to lock out of the church people who do not belong, but to lead their congregations to the edges of the Church to meet people crying out for healing. They are to be like medical staff in a field hospital during battle. The heart of his criticism of clericalism in the church is only secondarily about its hierarchical structure. More fundamentally it is about its preoccupation with the internal discipline and activities of the Church at the expense of its mission to the world.

The restrictions that he has placed on the use of the pre-Vatican II form of the Latin Mass reflect the same vision. He insists that the celebration of the Eucharist, in which the community enacts Christ’s giving, dying, rising and gathering of the Church, must be directed at shaping a Church united in witness to the Gospel. The liturgy is not primarily about individual piety or factional identity. He judged, rightly or wrongly, that the promotion of the Pre-Vatican form was corrosive of unity and fostered a narrow and self-referential version of the Gospel.

Synodality has become seen as Pope Francis’ most ambitious project. It addresses the need he sees to encourage and seed relationships within the Church that encourage its mission. The heart of synodality lies in a shared discernment. It involves listening and freely speaking about the mission of the Church between people in local congregations, between those in local congregations and Bishops and Diocesan staff, between regional Bishops and national staff, and between regional Bishops and the Pope and Roman staff. It is designed to inform ensure that at each level the governance of the Church is focused on discerning the needs identified by Christians on the ground and feeding back to local churches the reflections and decisions based on a wider experience. The process will naturally lead to the modifications of structure that will be seen to further the mission of the Church.

The emphasis on Synodality has been criticised by those who fear that it sidelines the need for radical structural change and by those who fear that it will lead to radical changes in faith. Proponents of both views can adduce evidence for their case. Pope Francis, however, trusts that the presence of the Spirit in these processes of listening and discernment will lead to a Church more focused on mission.  

Critics also often also see inconsistency and lack of authority in Pope Francis’ positions on personal and social ethics. They believe that he sometimes reaffirms traditional Catholic positions and sometimes undermines them by his acceptance of those who fail to live by them. He is variously blamed for wooliness of thought, lack of consistency, failure to get it,  and abrogation of responsibility.

When seen from within the lived Catholic faith that guides Pope Francis the perceived inconsistency disappears. Central to that faith is the conviction that the Spirit works in the Church in unfolding the implications of faith in the crucified and risen Jesus. This involves reflection on the Scriptures in the light of new questions and challenges, and is expressed in a body of reflection on God, on human life and behaviour and on the life of the Church. Bishops in the Church, including the Bishop of Rome, are responsible for working within tradition when speaking of faith and for welcoming people at the edge of the Church. Pope Francis is consistent in holding to the tradition while at the same time refusing to judge those who do not live by the positions it upholds.

In this article I have confined myself to understanding Pope Francis. I have claimed that he is consistent and predictable when seen in the light of his operative faith. I do not argue that he is right or well advised in all that he says and does. That is a matter for debate, particularly about whether in particular situations priority should be given to getting the mind right, getting the structures right or placing the feet right. Pope Francis habitually opts for the feet. That perhaps is natural if you want to follow Jesus’ way.  




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Pope Francis prays after laying a wreath at the Hypocenter Cenotaph at the Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park on November 24, 2019 in Nagasaki, Japan. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis, Church, Papacy



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Existing comments

Thank you, Pope Francis, for perseverance, commitment and a great smile. You lead and I’ll follow, even as I am a ‘step on the foot of my partner’ kind of dancer.

Pam | 23 March 2023  

Hi Andrew, I don't think I have read a more balanced and informative paper on Pope Francis.
I can only say thank you, you not only painted Pope Francis in a good light, you presented the love of God for all humanity in a way that is often lost in todays society.
Best wishes, Mick.

Mick Barker | 23 March 2023  

Thank you Andrew, you explained that wonderfully well.

Frank S | 23 March 2023  

A beautiful description of the way that Pope Francis lives his ministry. He seems to approach situations and ideas by thinking how Jesus would behave at that moment Hopefully such an approach will be an influence on all of our church members - particularly in their approach to synodality. Starting from a question "what would Jesus do or say in this moment?" could make a significant influence on the way Catholics approach the world.

Joe Barr | 24 March 2023  
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a beautiful analysis

Sheelah Egan | 25 March 2023  

"What would Jesus do or say at this moment"?" A good question that requires the guidance of the Church's scripture and tradition for responding.

John RD | 26 March 2023  

I always enjoy reading Andy's insider's low-down on everything and generally side with him. I think though that on this occasion he employs a degree of epistemic privilege available to members of the particular society sponsoring the publication that smacks of what I call 'Jesuititis'.

Of itself, Jesuititis is a condition not dissimilar to Benedictitis, Dominictitus, Augustinitus and even Franciscanitus, in which members of particular congregations sometimes suspend their profound wisdom and charism to defend the indefensible.
Ordinarily this pathology would not be problematic, except that it spreads among admirers and sycophants unable or unwilling to be inoculated against suspending personal critical discernment in favour of lavish and uncritical praise.

The condition is further exacerbated by the wearing of rose-tinted glasses that prevent sufferers from noticing the advanced symptoms of our malaise and, instead, inclines us towards joining in a chorus of praise that, troublingly, camouflages an advance in our disease and which poses a profound obstacle to curing our condition, even to the point that such mass avoidance and inaction risks death.

I refer here to various roadblocks that, deliberately or otherwise, have been placed in the path of synodalism (e.g. the 'Amazon') and which hampers timely remedial surgery.

Michael Furtado | 25 March 2023  

Back in the early 60’s at St Joseph’s Tech brainwashing school we had a larrikin chaplain. He was humorous, charming and even at times foul mouthed, with a perfected persona of the lovable working class Aussie rogue. He was very popular with the “lads”. That’s what the Brothers called us.

Actually though, it was all just theater. He was a conservative 1950’s loyal priest practicing the “nod and wink” to make sure things remained the same. We lads would soon finish school, get a job hopefully in the trades, find a good catholic girl, marry (of course in the Church) and raise a good catholic family. We would pay taxes to the State and give donations to the Church. He knew all that.

The finer points of moral theology and Church doctrines were not really our concern. We were to be practical people, “practical” about that sort of stuff. If we sinned, as we would of course we were only human, there was always Confession; if not Confession, then God’s infinite forgiveness.

What has this to do with Francis? That’s what he’s trying to do. Unfortunately “nod and wink” theology will not work. De-Christianization is too profound for soft hypocrisy in the media.

Actually, it did not even work on 1960’s lads: most walked out on the Church and took their children and grand children with them.

Fosco | 26 March 2023  

Thank you Fr Andy for this article. Let us all pray for Pope Francis as he surely needs as many prayers as possible at this time in salvation history...

Debra | 27 March 2023  

In many ways the good that Pope Francis does transcends the merely religious administrative side of his duties. His work for world peace, ecumenism and interreligious cooperation is sometimes glossed over by those looking at the nuts-and-bolts side of things within the Catholic Church itself. Of course, everything stems from who he is. His recent hospitalization at the age of 86 may cause his critics on both sides to pause a moment. Do they want to go back to the Bad Old Days that Fosco describes so well or do they want a completely deconstructed Modernist Christianity like the German bishops? I would say Pope Francis was a pathfinder who stuck to the path. The fact that neither Conservatives nor Liberals approved of him might be a sign he was really doing the right thing.

Edward Fido | 30 March 2023