I think it’s time to begin again with Pope Francis.
If this week in the Church has shown anything, it’s that many Catholics simply don’t get Pope Francis. Particularly in the US — although clear cracks have appeared in Germany, Africa, and Eastern Europe as well — there is a disconnect between the pope and many of the people, even after ten years. It isn’t only affecting those who are openly rebellious or critical of him, either. I’ve seen many express that they think he’s well-intentioned, but sense that he is naive, out-of-touch, or is listening to bad advisors. And although no pope is perfect (and surely many have relied on bad advice), to suggest that his landmark teachings and initiatives are the result of a lack of awareness about the world today is totally unfounded. Pope Francis’s intentions are no secret, but false narratives abound. Catholics and non-Catholics slap ideological labels on him that typically don’t apply.
Detailed explanations and apologetics can only do so much when those uneasy with Pope Francis respond to each new “controversy” in the exact same way. Certainly, addressing each issue as it arises can help. But because so many Catholics (especially in the US) don’t seem to grasp the bigger picture behind Francis’s teachings and initiatives, the confusion cycle repeats itself every time. It’s as if US conservative Catholicism has frozen itself in the year 2012 and thinks Pope Francis will go away if they ignore him long enough. For many, their greatest fear is that the next pope will be “in the mold of” Pope Francis and carry his approach and initiatives into the future.
We can sense this fear in many of the responses to Fiducia Supplicans in which influential Catholic figures — such as the eight Catholic Answers apologists who weighed in or the founders of the Pillar — who more or less acknowledge the document’s orthodoxy but whose anguish is palpable nonetheless. This is summed up nicely in the response of Catholic Answers’ Cy Kellett, who wrote, “I must admit, I wince a little whenever Pope Francis makes the news.”
The vision and mission of Francis’s pontificate are grounded in a call to conversion and trust in the Holy Spirit. This conversion is not merely the ongoing conversion that we’re all called to experience in our personal faith, but a revolutionary conversion of the entire Church across many dimensions: pastoral, personal, ecclesiological, synodal, evangelical, and foundational. In a certain sense this is the ongoing mission of the Church, but in another sense it is a new approach to pastoral ministry and evangelization.
I have said in the past that reading Evangelii Gaudium — Pope Francis’s 2013 exhortation on evangelization — was a life-changing experience for me. It re-shaped my perspective on what is possible in the Church, what it means to be a missionary, and what it means to accompany and to be accompanied in the Christian life. It was a balm to my soul after years of lamenting moral crises in Church and society. It planted a seed of optimism about the Church in my heart that has never stopped growing. There are so many passages in Evangelii Gaudium that moved me deeply and helped prepare me for the next decade of Francis’s papacy, including:
We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than simply bystanders. Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives. (EG 171)
A deep, prayerful reading of Evangelii Gaudium can help Catholics understand the framework of Francis’s papacy. The seeds for what was to come — Amoris Laetitia, Laudato Si’, the Document on Human Fraternity, Fratelli Tutti, the Synod on Synodality, and Fiducia Supplicans — can be found there.
But I suggest we go back even further to help understand where the groundwork for Francis’s pontificate was laid. Much of Francis’s message in Evangelii Gaudium was inspired by the final document of the V General Conference of the Episcopate of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM), which took place in May 2007 in Aparecida, Brazil. This document, known colloquially as the Aparecida document, is the place to begin to understand this pontificate.
In a November interview with Gerard O’Connell of America Magazine, Cardinal Christophe Pierre, the US papal nuncio, mentioned that when he first arrived in the US in 2016, he “was astounded that many of the bishops didn’t know what had happened in Aparecida. They did not know that ‘Evangelii Gaudium,’ the first document of Pope Francis, was rooted in Aparecida.” Pierre explained further:
“This is very serious, because what has happened was not banal. It was the beginning of what we live today. They didn’t know that the pope was one of the bishops at Aparecida, or that the whole South American church had made a tremendous effort of synodality. … The bishops said the church and society have changed, and the transmission of the faith is not done through the culture as in the past, so we have to provide new opportunities and ways for people to have a personal encounter with Christ through a church that is fitting to the new society, a new way of being Catholic. This demands a readjustment of the pastoral approach, which is very difficult to do because people are, we all are, set in our views, in our ways of preaching and organizing.”
This was a pivotal moment in the history of the Latin American approach to mission and evangelization, and reflects a pastoral conversion that the US Church has stubbornly resisted undergoing. This conversion requires taking risks and encountering those who live lives and believe things that do not correspond to our values. Speaking personally, before Francis became pope, my idealized vision of a Catholic life was a comfortable middle-class suburban enclave with reverent, high-church liturgies and being surrounded by like-minded families so I could protect my kids from the immorality of the outside world.
Pope Francis reminds us of the Cross and that the Christian life is lived in tension and risk with trust in the Holy Spirit. We are called to encounter others with the love of Christ. We are called to be witnesses to the Word and to bring good news to the world. We can try to hide from the world, but Christ calls us to encounter it. That can be a terrifying proposal to a comfortable Catholic.
Back in 2020, I did a three part podcast with Rodrigo Guerra, in which we talked about Pope Francis’s transformative vision. He suggested that Pope Francis’s approach can be summed up in paragraphs 11-12 of the Aparecida document, which I will share here:
11. A Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of the faith, to occasional participation in some sacraments, to the repetition of doctrinal principles, to bland or nervous moralizing, that does not convert the life of the baptized would not withstand the trials of time. Our greatest danger is
the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the church in which everything apparently continues normally, but in reality the faith is being consumed and falling into meanness. 
We must all start again from Christ, recognizing that
being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.
12. In Latin America and the Caribbean, at a time when many of our peoples are preparing to celebrate the bicentenary of their independence, we find ourselves facing the challenge of revitalizing our way of being Catholic and our personal options for the Lord, so that Christian faith may become more deeply rooted in the heart of Latin American individuals and peoples as founding event and living encounter with Christ. He reveals himself as newness of life and mission in all dimensions of personal and social existence. This requires, on the basis of our Catholic identity, a much more missionary evangelization, in dialogue with all Christians.
The above italicized quote about “gray pragmatism,” by the way, is from a 1996 conference given by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He, like the bishops of CELAM, recognized the need for a bold new response to the changing world.
If you are a committed Catholic and you struggle to understand Pope Francis and what motivates him or what makes him tick, you owe it to yourself to read both the Aparecida document and Evangelii Gaudium with an open heart. Let your shepherd teach you. Earlier this year, Cardinal Pierre said that the Church is “in need of an eye-opening experience.” If you struggle with Pope Francis, perhaps one or both of these beautiful documents will give you one.
It would be a good New Year’s resolution.