In a recent article by NCR’s John Allen, Jr., titled “Francis at 100 Days: ‘The World’s Parish Priest,'” the veteran Vatican reporter attempts to offer a summary account and initial analysis of the new pope’s first 100 days as Bishop of Rome. He highlights what appears to be the ostensible dissonance between what is (or is not) actually being done and what the perception of the pontiff’s “administration” has been. In other words, there are some who might suggest that not a whole lot is, in effect, changing or has changed because of the relatively few and minor substantive changes that have been inaugurated to date. Put another way, Allen suggests: “The usual models would thus say that so far, Francis has been all sizzle and no steak.”
“Yet,” as Allen notes, “at the grassroots, there’s a palpable sense something seismic is underway.”
This is not to be underestimated. There is a way in which cynics (including me at times…let’s face it, we’re all cynical now and then) follow Allen’s initial observation: on the one hand, some presume nothing new is happening until something dramatic unfolds and, on the other hand, some are simply waiting for “the shoe to drop.”
While it’s by and large true to say that “actions speak louder than words,” perhaps in the case of Pope Francis we might need to simply say that actions speak louder than actions. Or, as Allen puts it, “sometimes style really is substance.” Allen explains:
Perhaps the key to resolving the conflict boils down to this: Francis seems determined to function as a pastor, at least as much as a primate or politician, so the right model may not be the one used to assess chief executives. Rather, it’s how Catholics tend to think about a parish priest. Their basic question usually isn’t what his policy positions are, but whether he inspires.
What is interesting about Pope Francis’s style is that it really does seem to inspire. Whether or not there are empirical correlative effects — such as the alleged rise in confession and mass attendance — there is a near-universal sense of Pope Francis’s sincerity and intention. He points, not to himself — which could sometimes be the effect of the late John Paul II’s charismatic side — but to those for whom a singular voice, let alone a world stage, is unimaginable. Pope Francis’s words and actions point beyond himself to the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten. His words and actions point simultaneously to Christ and the meaning of authentic Christian living.
As I shared yesterday, Thomas Merton draws our attention to the fact that the Bible is about God’s promise to the poor and marginalized, just as liberation theologians have reminded us ever since. Likewise, Pope Francis is reminded the world of exactly the same thing, which is why even business newspapers and magazines are on the defensive in response. Allen highlights this:
As evidence that people are taking notice, the august business journal Forbes felt compelled in a mid-May editorial to admonish the pope. “Profit isn’t what drives poverty,” the editorial asserted; rather, “profit is what overcomes poverty.”
Of course, fervorinos on behalf of the poor have long been a staple of papal rhetoric. What seems to give Francis’ appeals punch is the perception they’re backed up by personal commitment.
In addition to Pope Francis’s simplicity, Allen highlights humility, accessibility, and staying out of politics as key themes of his first 100 days as pope. All together, these elements construct the foundation of the pope as universal pastor. He is for the church the spiritual leader it needs at this time, a person disinterested with the office and trappings, a person who seems to understand that he is first a bishop — a local leader — and not a ecclesiastical monarch, a person whose ability to walk the walk gives force to the talk of the magisterium in an age when all thought the church had lost all moral authority.
Indeed, Pope Francis strikes me as a universal pastor but, really, isn’t that exactly what a pope should be?