Pope Francis was elected eight years ago today. I had been hoping to write something today to mark the anniversary. It’s growing late. But I can’t let this day pass without commenting on one aspect of Francis’s approach that is often misunderstood.
Over these last eight years, many people have criticized his “spontaneity.” Many are unhappy with a pope who speaks “off-the-cuff,” or gives candid, unrehearsed responses to reporters’ questions. They don’t like when he is asked about a question of doctrine and provides an improvised answer, often with unconventional analogies and colorful anecdotes. A pope, many will insist, only gives prepared answers, and every word is vetted for clarity and doctrinal coherence beforehand.
Perhaps this was true with previous popes, but perhaps the reality is simply that Francis’s papacy is only the second to occur entirely in the internet age, and the use of social media and streaming video has increased exponentially since his election. We have short memories, and while it’s true that Pope Benedict’s personality is dramatically different from that of Francis, Benedict himself was much more reserved than many of his predecessors. When people criticize Francis for his comments during in-flight press conferences, for example, I am often reminded of John Thavis’s book, The Vatican Diaries—specifically the chapter on his experiences as a Vatican journalist who traveled on many papal flights.
The book was released in February 2013, the final month of Benedict’s papacy, so this was written before Pope Francis made in-flight papal press conferences famous. In the second chapter, Thavis contrasts John Paul II’s in-flight press conferences with Benedict’s. He writes that typically, Benedict “answered a few token questions before takeoff and quickly returned to the front of the plane, leaving many of us nostalgic for the days when John Paul II would field our questions at length during his flights, roaming up and down the aisles, even during turbulence. Benedict, it seemed, was the type who liked to keep his seat belt fastened” (p. 35).
I am not sharing this to denigrate Pope Emeritus Benedict in any way, just to point out the fact that Benedict’s personality is markedly different than that of both the pope who preceded him and the one who followed him. Another point that Thavis makes is the way developments in telecommunications have changed how the press covers the day-to-day activities of the pope. In the same chapter, he gives an example where Benedict once did give a spontaneous answer to a question, and later in the flight attempted to clarify his response through his spokesman. Thavis explains why trying to alter the official transcript no longer works. He writes, “In years past, backpedaling on a pope’s verbal miscues was easy because, quite simply, journalists couldn’t file their stories until the plane landed several hours later. But the Alitalia 777 was equipped with phones, and the genie was already out of the bottle” (p. 36).
Put plainly, the increased media access to the pope today tells us more about him—warts and all—than we’ve ever known about any pope in the past. Last year, Pedro Gabriel wrote a piece showing us some of the very first moments popes were captured on camera and their voices were recorded. Before the 19th century, all we have are what historians decided to record in writing or what artists chose to depict in portraits. We have the official statements, but we really have no idea what many of the popes were like in person. Some of them, certainly, were introverted and measured in their speech. But it’s extremely unlikely that all of them were.
Which brings us to Pope Francis. It seems that many Catholics are convinced that he is either carefully and strategically advancing an agenda or that he is careless and incompetent and being very irresponsible with his vitally important role. I think both positions are wrong. After eight years of watching and listening to this pope, I am convinced that there are three things that motivate him as he goes through each day: constant prayer, trust in the Holy Spirit, and abandonment to the Love of God. The reason why he places so much stress on listening, accompanying, discerning, and praying is that he has discovered that this is where true freedom is found.
We know his morning routine. He begins every day in prayer before the blessed sacrament (during which he writes his homily) and then he says morning Mass. Every day, he prays the office and 15 decades of the Rosary. He prays with the people he meets throughout the day, he constantly asks the crowds he greets “pray for me.”
Who can forget those first moments on the Loggia, eight years ago today, when he made this request and bowed his head:
“Now, I would like to give you a blessing, but first I want to ask you for a favor. Before the bishop blesses the people, I ask that you pray to the Lord so that he blesses me. This is the prayer of the people who are asking for the blessing of their bishop.
“In silence, let us say this prayer of you for me.”
I believe this is where Pope Francis finds his strength to go through each day. It is true that in many ways, he keeps a tight schedule (as a bishop and then a pope, he has no choice), but in other ways his days are sustained by prayer and filled with spontaneity of spirit and trust in the God of surprises. Does that mean he’s always perfect? Absolutely not. But it allows for unprecedented moments of inspiration to take place, and—thanks to the age of digital media—lead by example and give hope to people around the world.
This is what he’s been trying to teach us all along. Not only is he calling us to break free of our worldly attachments, but he is asking us to abandon ourselves to whatever God has in store for us.
This is a key to unlocking and understanding this papacy. He is not the type of person who carefully cultivates an image or plans out all the details of an intricate agenda. He simply is who he is, and he places his trust in God to sustain and surprise him. His context is always relational (with God, with others, with himself) and is always based in the context of the reality that is set before him. From there, he abandons himself to God’s providence. And that takes faith.
He touched on these ideas in a speech he gave yesterday:
To abandon oneself to Love means to carry out a true act of faith. Faith can never be reduced to a list of concepts or a series of affirmations to believe in. Faith is expressed and understood within a relationship: the relationship between God and humanity, and between humanity and God, in accordance with the logic of the call and the response: God calls and the human person responds. The reverse is also true: we call to God when we are in need, and he always answers. Faith is the encounter with Mercy, with God himself who is Mercy – the name of God is Mercy – and it is abandoning oneself in the arms of this Love, mysterious and generous, of which we are greatly in need, but to which, at times, we are afraid of surrendering ourselves.
Experience teaches that those who do not surrender themselves to God end up, sooner or later, abandoning themselves to something else, ending up in the arms of the worldly mentality, which in the end leads to bitterness, sadness and solitude, and does not heal. So, the first step to a good Confession is indeed the act of faith, of surrendering oneself, with which the penitent approaches Mercy. And every confessor, therefore, must be capable always of being astonished by their brothers who, out of faith, ask for God’s forgiveness and, again solely out of faith, surrender themselves to him, delivering themselves in Confession. Their suffering for their own sins is the sign of this trustful abandonment to Love.
As we approach the end of Lent, many of us are preparing to make a good confession very soon. During your examination of conscience, try to do so in a spirit of abandonment to Love. We grow closer to Christ when we are released from worldly attachments, and it is in becoming free that we become holy.
Happy anniversary, Holy Father, and thank you.