Guardini is not the only influence on Pope Francis, of course.  Pope Francis’ theology seems heavily influenced by his pastoral work in Argentina. That is to say, Pope Francis’ theology is pastoral in nature, and it is also shaped by his experiences in Argentina.

Pope Francis’ biography on the Vatican website is eager to mention that Francis is a “simple pastor.” Like St. John Paul II, he has an acute awareness of and sympathy with the difficulties of the laity trying to do their best in everyday life. St. John Paul II was able to write Love and Responsibility and the Theology of the Body, rooted as they are in a deep philosophical and theological tradition, not because he simply reasoned to it, but because he understood deeply what makes relationships work through many hours of counseling and pastoral support to engaged and married Catholics.

Similarly, Amoris Laetitia is written from the unique perspective of a pastor who has journeyed with people through seemingly impossible situations.  When Francis writes, therefore, he is not writing merely to educate or elucidate, although there is plenty of that. Rather, Francis writes to guide and direct, to provide encouragement and sometimes a kick in the pants.

The most “pastoral” examples of his are, of course, Amoris Laetitia and Gaudete et Exsultate, in which in several places the Pope addresses directly to “you.” Akin to his very personal theology, Francis takes a very personal approach in his writing. He writes,

You too need to see the entirety of your life as a mission. Try to do so by listening to God in prayer and recognizing the signs that he gives you. Always ask the Spirit what Jesus expects from you at every moment of your life and in every decision you must make, so as to discern its place in the mission you have received. Allow the Spirit to forge in you the personal mystery that can reflect Jesus Christ in today’s world.

Amoris Laetitia created waves by some of its more difficult-to-accept pastoral directives. However, the bulk of the document is written with a special concern toward family life, even mundane as it is sometimes. He writes in a style that is serious about the problems facing families but also celebratory of of their love and devotion to each other.

In the family, three words need to be used.  I want to repeat this! Three words: ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, ‘Sorry’.  Three essential words!”. In our families when we are not overbearing and ask: ‘May I?’; in our families when we are not selfish and can say: ‘Thank you!’; and in our families when someone realizes that he or she did something wrong and is able to say ‘Sorry!’, our family experiences peace and joy”.  Let us not be stingy about using these words, but keep repeating them, day after day.

These small examples may be kitschy, but what I am arguing for goes beyond style. Rather, his pastoral approach  represents a deep orientation to each person as an individual who is living his own Christian journey. As discussed in my other article about Romano Guardini, I believe this relates to a personal conviction of the pontiff that life is a series of “I-Thou” relationships, in which people extend themselves to others and receive others in return, saying, “It is good that you exist.”

It would be the wrong time to get into a full treatment of liberation theology here, but it cannot be omitted either. To what extent did the young Francis agree or disagree with liberation theology? What impact did it have on his theology?

On the one hand, Francis very much takes seriously the Church’s “option for the poor.” Francis writes,

For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one. God shows the poor “his first mercy”. This divine preference has consequences for the faith life of all Christians, since we are called to have “this mind… which was in Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:5).

On the other hand, the option for the poor, in Francis’ vision, is incompatible with philosophies which would deny the “other.”

Our commitment does not consist exclusively in activities or programmes of promotion and assistance; what the Holy Spirit mobilizes is not an unruly activism, but above all an attentiveness which considers the other “in a certain sense as one with ourselves”. This loving attentiveness is the beginning of a true concern for their person which inspires me effectively to seek their good. This entails appreciating the poor in their goodness, in their experience of life, in their culture, and in their ways of living the faith…. [Emphasis added]

The emphasized phrase in the above quote is one area that sets Pope Francis markedly apart from the principles of liberation theology, which is inherently skeptical of popular forms of piety. Instead, what Pope Francis appears to espouse is the “theology of the people.” Whereas one criticism of liberation theology has been to accuse it of being a type of cultural imperialism that seeks to read the plight of the Latin American poor through a foreign–namely Marxist–lens, the theology of the people values and exalts personal and communal piety and honors people as rooted in places, families, and communities. The theology of the people is a fundamentally positive and culturally appreciative way to express the preferential option of the poor, especially as it sees each individual as not an object but as a cooperative part of God’s plan.  

Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium, “Only on the basis of this real and sincere closeness can we properly accompany the poor on their path of liberation.”

Michael Sean Winters, in the National Catholic Reporter, quotes extensively from Rafael Luciani’s book on the subject of the “theology of the people.” He quotes Luciani,

When we stop seeing [the poor] as objects of study and begin treating the poor personally, that is when we begin to be evangelized by them. … It is in this shared everyday life where the beauty of a humanity that has been touched by the divine mystery is revealed to us.

Luciani identifies the theology of the people as originating in Argentina immediately following Vatican II and tracks its development through the various meetings of Latin American bishops. Cardinal Bergoglio, according to Winters, had a heavy hand in the drafting of the document following the 2007 meeting in Aparecida.  

In practice, what does the theology of the people mean?  We know that Francis shared a deep compassion for the poor, but his compassion led him to serve the poor directly. In fact, he was rebuffed at one point by his superior for not adopting the Jesuit mentality at the time of thinking about the poor solely in a programmatic or sociological way. As the story is told, Francis got in trouble for ensuring that the young Jesuits in his care ran a soup kitchen for the poor in their neighborhood, and dedicating himself to other forms of direct charity. In other words, even within the Jesuits, Francis’ first instinct was to serve the people in their present needs, less to upset the social order that had produced the poor in the first place, a belief more aligned with the principles of liberation theology proper.

We don’t need history to tell us that Francis is concerned about the poor. He speaks about the poor all the time. But what the above anecdote can reveal is that Francis is not concerned about “fixing” poverty with technology or mere welfare. Rather, he is speaking primarily of each man or woman, in their struggle with poverty and in their pain and suffering, their needs and their desire for freedom. With a heightened sense of the “other,” most especially those in one’s own neighborhood, individuals build true and transforming communities that in turn build lasting justice.

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Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts.  He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.

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