Dr. Austen Ivereigh via Zoom to Archdiocese of Boston Social Justice Convocation, November 13, 2021

Perhaps it’s the Gospel readings we’ve been having that make me want to share some ideas about how Pope Francis sees our present moment: in our world, and in our Church.[1] Not just sees, but seizes, this moment. Because the point is to read the signs of the times and respond, understanding that we do not control time, but can hear God, who is the master of time, speaking through those signs.

Francis hails from a Church, the Latin-American, which has developed an expertise in discerning the signs of the times, above all at its great continental general conferences. The last of those, in Aparecida, Brazil, in May 2007, offered the most profound discernment of our times that the Church has produced anywhere in the world. And the discerner-in-chief at Aparecida was of course Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He has always had an extraordinary capacity to see beyond the moment, to grasp the deeper movements going on in history, the graces offered to us by our Creator, and the temptations and obstacles that lead us to resist them. As I was often told in Buenos Aires by the people that worked closely with him: while smart people look to the horizon beyond, Bergoglio is looking five horizons ahead.

And his discernment of this, the time of our pandemic, is no exception.

I’m going to visit five key moments in the pope’s response to the pandemic and post-pandemic era, and then explain why I see in his reading of this moment a development from the way he saw history moving before Covid. And I’ll suggest some ways in which this discernment might also affect the way we choose to operate, in our advocacy and work for justice.

The first moment is obvious – even iconic: the extraordinary Urbi et Orbi of March 27, 2020, when Francis stood in an empty St Peter’s Square, gathering up, it seemed, the whole of humanity. Like Moses leading his people, he pointed to “the tempest” and what it was revealing, and invited us to see that change was coming, that we could no longer go back, but assured us that the Lord was with us, that He was offering us the grace of conversion in “uncovering once more that blessed common belonging, of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers and sisters.”[2]

The second moment was October 4, 2020, the feast of St Francis of Assisi, when Francis signed his second great Franciscan teaching, Fratelli Tutti, on “fraternity and social friendship.” Prepared before the pandemic but given urgency by it, Fratelli Tutti was about our common humanity, our mutual belonging, how we are, in reality, as Jesus revealed in the parable of the Good Samaritan, one people, called together in fraternal diversity. Yet there are powerful forces urging us to flee that truth, to indulge our anguish and fear by trying to build walls around provisional identities.

The third moment is the book I worked on with Pope Francis over that first summer of lockdown, which came out in December 2020 with a title borrowed from Fratelli Tutti chapter 8. (It is, by the way, wholly Pope Francis’s book: I just supplied some of the scaffolding on which he could hang his text.) In Let Us Dream: the Path to a Better Future, Francis addressed the question I put to him: how do we come out of this crisis better?[3]

Like a spiritual director sitting down with a seeker burning with questions, Francis in Let Us Dream invited us to contemplate what we saw, to see where the Good Spirit was pointing, and to opt for concrete measures that took us in that direction. At the heart of the book is Francis seeing, and responding to, an awakening of the people to its dignity.

The fourth and fifth moments happened this year — just last month.

On October 9-10 in Rome, Francis opened the two-year global synod process which, unlike all previous synods of bishops, begins with a gathering of the whole people of God — the biggest popular consultation in human history — to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.

Its topic is the very nature of the Church itself, and the call to be what Jesus founded it to be: “an open square where all can feel at home and participate,” as Francis put it in the speech opening the synod. In other words: a Church characterized by the synod’s three keywords of communion, participation, and mission.[4] The means of achieving this synodal conversion are spelled out in the synod handbook: “While the Synod of Bishops has taken place up until now as a gathering of bishops with and under the authority of the Pope, the Church increasingly recognizes that synodality is the path for the entire People of God. Hence the Synodal Process is no longer only an assembly of bishops but a journey for all the faithful.”[5] The people of God is no longer the object of the synod, therefore, but its subject; indeed, we are called to be discerning subjects, called to participate as such, to have agency as missionary disciples. A Church whose members grasp this, of course, can no longer be a Church that allows for or ignores the abuse of power and conscience on which the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people depends.[6]

The fifth moment came a week later, when Francis addressed the Popular Movements, that loose aggregation of groups that have emerged from the people’s self-organization on the poor periphery. He made clear that they were the protagonists of the change he was calling for — “social poets,” “an invisible army” — in whose struggle for life against a system of death he saw “the Lord who makes Himself present in our midst, to give us His kingdom as gift.”

On their behalf, he made an extraordinary set of appeals to the powerful and wealthy, which is what made the news. But what was too easy to miss was how Francis spoke of “points of no return, turning points, crossroads at which humanity must make choices.” He spoke, too, of how “every person, every organization, every country, and the whole world, needs to look for moments to reflect, discern and choose,” because returning to the previous mindsets would be — as he put it — suicidal, ecocidal and genocidal.[7]

A threshold has been crossed. God is calling to us to change. And the change must come through the people assembling to reflect and choose. There is no political program, no providential leader, who can now bring about what needs to happen; put not your trust in princes, as Psalm 146 counsels. Instead, Francis asks the princes to follow the people. He urges politicians in the speech to have “the courage to look at their own people, to look people in the eye, and the courage to know that the good of a people is much more than a consensus between parties.” Then he turns directly to the people, to reiterate the invitation of Fratelli Tutti 8: “Let us dream together,” he urges, adding: “I am convinced when we look through these dreams we will find God’s own dream for all of us, who are His own sons and daughters.”[8]

These, then, are five post-Covid moments in which Francis responds to the pandemic with discernment: reading the spirits, he is alert to where God is bursting through into our story, into history. And where is that breaking-in? I am struck by is the theological locus of that discernment, the place of his hope, in the wisdom and agency of the people. He sees the people awakening to their dignity and demanding a new future; he sees the people as agents of change, seeing what needs to happen and taking responsibility.

He sees this as the hour of the people.

Let Us Dream is the fullest exploration of this idea so far in the pontificate and much of his speech to the popular movements repeats what is there. Part 3 of the book is wholly taken up with the implications of this insight: what it means to be a people and to act as a people, and how our multiple crises — economic, ecological, and so on — are the result of the loss of that awareness of ourselves as a single people.

But it’s there in Part 1, too, in answer to my question of how he sees this moment, where he speaks of “a people’s movement calling for profound change, a change that flows from the roots, from the concrete needs of a people, that arises from the freedom and dignity of a people.” And he adds: “This is the deep change we need, change that arises from people capable of meeting, organizing, and coming up with truly human proposals.”

He goes on to cite the first eight chapters of the Book of Nehemiah, which is the story of the people of Jerusalem organizing itself to restore the people’s dignity in a difficult moment, when leaders have failed or are distant and enemies press at the gates. Nehemiah is the story of the people struggling, recovering the Book of the Law, and then celebrating with tears in their eyes, because the Law means freedom from the “despotic control of the economy by a very few,” as Francis puts it, and the concentration of power in the hands of elites.

The Law here is not a burden or a straightjacket but liberation. The law is the capacity to regulate economy and society for the benefit of all, for the common good. The people struggle, in other words, for an order that frees society from the anarchy of the libido dominandi. Such is the awakening, and the struggle, Francis sees now.[9]

What is interesting to me, as a close observer of this pontificate, is that this is a new perspective from the one that Francis had prior to March 2020. If you track his speeches to diplomats each January (in 2017 or 2019, for example) or major civic addresses (say, to European leaders in 2016 and 2017) you see Francis taking a very somber view of what is happening in the world.

He never loses his joy, or his hope, but he is deeply worried by what he sees: the rise of various kinds of fundamentalism and violence in religion; the wave of populist nationalism and scapegoating and wall-building across the western world, exploiting popular anguish to gain power; the breakdown of civility in society; as well as post-truth tribalism, the rise of racial tensions, the decline of multilateralism, and many other developments that remind him of the 1930s. He describes them, grimly, in the first chapter of Fratelli Tutti which is called, appropriately, ‘Dark clouds over a closed world’. Fratelli Tutti was almost entirely completed before the pandemic, and – despite its uplifting call — is a sombre document, reflecting the pope’s pre-pandemic reading.

Much of what Francis said and wrote about the state of the world in these middle-pontificate years echoes, sometimes explicitly, what the sociologist Sygmund Bauman writes about in Liquid Modernity and his other books.[10] This was essentially the diagnosis of Aparecida: there is a crisis in the bonds of belonging, leading to fragmentation and the breakup of society, leaving it harder for us to connect with our Creator, with Creation, and with our fellow creatures, human and nonhuman. (This diagnosis, incidentally, is what drives the concern in Francis’s great triptych of teaching documents, to regenerate those bonds: with God and the Church – Evangelii Gaudium; with the created world – Laudato Si’; and with our fellow human creatures – Fratelli Tutti.)

More than once Francis alluded in those middle years of the pontificate to the disappearance of memory and of culture, and the sobering prospect that — as he put it in Chile in January 2018 — “Without the “us” of a people, of a family and of a nation, but also the “us” of the future, of our children and of tomorrow, without the “us” of a city that transcends “me” and is richer than individual interests, life will be not only increasingly fragmented, but also more conflictual and violent.”[11]

In Let Us Dream, he repeats what he said in Chile about the disappearance of “us” but adds, crucially: “We are not there yet. This crisis has called forth the sense that we need each other, that the people still exists.” And he goes on: “Now is the time for a new Nehemiah project, a new humanism that can harness this eruption of fraternity, to put an end to the globalization of indifference and the hyperinflation of the individual.”[12]

Through the suffering of Covid, he has seen a new hope: in the consciousness of fraternity, in the awakening of awareness of the dignity of the people. Tribulation is bringing forth solidarity. He sees it first right at the start, in the Urbi et Orbi, when he notes how “in the face of so much suffering, where the authentic development of our peoples is assessed, we experience the priestly prayer of Jesus: ‘That they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21).”[13]

In the rest of Let Us Dream he explores what this might mean and look like, to harness this eruption of fraternity. And he invites us to develop that vision for ourselves, for our mission.

What, then, are the implications of this discernment, for us, for the Church, for our work?

Here we need a key Francis word: encounter. It is a key Aparecida word. The bishops at Aparecida did not just diagnose contemporary modernity, they also discerned the implications for the Church. They asked the synodal question: “what is the Holy Spirit asking of us? How must we change in order to proclaim the Gospel in these new circumstances?” They saw that the traditional transmission belts of faith — law, culture, Catholic institutions — were increasingly frayed or broken, and that any idea of neo-Christendom was over, and that the Church was called to a “deep and profound rethinking of its mission.”[14] That mission was to facilitate what they called “a personal and community encounter with Jesus Christ that raises up missionary disciples.”

For this they saw they needed “a pastoral and missionary conversion,” one that would be spelled out again in Evangelii Gaudium: to start from the reality of what is, which is post-Christendom, and to see in it an invitation to start over from the experience of the encounter with Christ. That means to go out, to proclaim the kerygma, and to perform the loving mercy of God in Jesus Christ in everything we do. Because without that “founding” encounter, what in Aparecida they called el encuentro fundante, Christianity would increasingly cease to make sense. As law and culture secularized, it would come to be seen as an iron cage or an imposition. And equally, the Church itself would increasingly be hollowed out, no longer evangelizing but taking refuge in a culture war and a moralistic ideology. In The Mind of Pope Francis, Massimo Borghesi calls this the Church’s “moralistic deviation in the age of globalization.” Francis himself in Evangelii Gaudium calls this temptation eticismo sin bondad, “ethicism bereft of kindness.”

So Aparecida called for the Church to become “a mother who goes to embrace, a welcoming home, and a permanent school of missionary communion.” It’s what Francis says all the time: we convince not by argument but by welcoming, by opening doors, by embracing and accompanying. We evangelize by being like God: embracing first, unconditionally, in order that people recognize their dignity enough to want to change. He said it again recently, in Assisi: “the most evangelical expression we are called to make our own is ‘hospitality’.”[15] We perform the mercy of Christ when we sense need, respond concretely, and bring people in.

What is the effect of this encounter? In the third part of Let Us Dream, ‘A Time to Act’, Francis describes in beautiful detail what it means to discover we belong, that we are part of a people; how a people awakens to its dignity in time of tribulation, an awareness of its soul. He is clear where this comes from: God’s love and closeness. “Jesus comes to restore Israel to the remembrance of God’s closeness, to restore to the people the dignity of the promise,” he writes.

The most moving moment for me during the making of Let Us Dream came when Francis was describing the big outdoor Mass he began holding every July, in mid-winter, in the Plaza Constitución, for the people on the periphery. In his recorded answer to one of my questions, I heard his voice become very intense; what he said was coming straight from his heart. He said the crowd that gathered in the Plaza to pray for what they needed reminded him of the people that followed Jesus, those who stayed for hours listening to him, not a passive crowd dazzled by hate-filled populist rhetoric, but a dignified, organized assembly of ordinary people who “carried within them the dignity that God’s closeness had revealed to them.”[16]

For Francis, this encounter takes place whenever people awaken to their dignity or have their dignity restored to them, whenever the poor are spurred to organize to seek what their dignity demands. This is the founding encounter of the hour of the people.

That is why, in his address to the popular movements recently, he spoke of the George Floyd protests as a “collective Samaritan.” Or in Part 1 of Let Us Dream, when he described the #MeToo movement as an awakening that exposes a corrupt mindset of entitlement, the libido dominandi of the abuser.[17] Francis is not naïve; such awakenings will be mixed up with many non-Gospel elements, or corrupted. In Let Us Dream, for example, Francis critiques the cancel culture that leads BLM supporters to pull down statues in an attempt to purify the past.[18] But he is concerned that focussing exclusively on these elements or condemning them without discernment, as one church leader appeared to do recently, is to fail to see that the Spirit is at work in the awakening and the organizing.[19]

Rather, Francis asks us instead to accompany all such movements, illuminating and encouraging with the light of the Gospel, offering teaching and guidance, but respecting that it is the people that organize themselves, born of the encounter. The Church must open its doors to them and walk with them, he says in Let Us Dream, where he adds that he would like every diocese in the world to have an ongoing collaboration with such movements. This of course happens in the US already in the involvement of many churches in broad-based community organizing, in coalitions such as Faith in Action, PICO, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and so on—work that is often supported by the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

But let’s not miss the importance of this call. The pope is not just endorsing a cause of justice, but a way of organizing and working for that justice, in ways that are both  within the Catholic Social Teaching tradition and that develop it. Just as he asks the Church to open its doors to the self-organization of the people, so he asks politics to do the same. Francis described this in a video message in May as a “politics not just for the people, but with the people, rooted in their communities and in their values.”[20] He calls this popularism – an ugly word in English – where others might call it “inclusive populism.”[21] But whatever term we give it, it is a politics concerned not just with concrete issues of concern to the poor – housing, jobs, wages — but that gives expression to the values of communities, building fraternity in civil society through dialogue and advancing the dignity of people through their institutions and values.

What are the implications of this papal discernment of our current moment, especially for those who work in the Church for justice? I want to suggest four possible lessons.

1) First, recognize the Spirit stirring in a new consciousness of the people. The pandemic has shaken up humanity, and that there is a new awareness that things cannot or should not go back to where they were. Many people have felt what in Let Us Dream Francis calls the “twitch upon the thread,” using a phrase from GK Chesterton’s Father Brown novels. How can we help people to recognize that twitch and to respond to it, to ask themselves: to what service am I now being called? What changes does God want us to make in our lives that can help build a better future?

2) Open up to the margins. Open the door to the people’s movements. Engage with them, hear from them, accompany them, offer them hospitality. “By opening up to the margins, to the people’s organizations, we unleash change,” Francis writes (Let Us Dream 126). Later (130) he urges us to “dignify the peripheral areas of our cities” but in ways that are led by local people, with respect for “the voice and actions of those who live in the place and their institutions.” And he adds: “When organizations act together beyond boundaries of belief and ethnicity to achieve concrete goals for their communities, then we can say that our peoples have claimed back their soul.”Are there implications here for the way we work?

3) Be willing to think big about how we reorganize our world. Our economy is there not just to generate wealth and growth, but is at the service of the common good — it should be a “mission economy,” to use Mariana Mazzucatto’s phrase. Let us help society define those missions. How can we enable access to dignified work for all? How do we regenerate the natural world? How do we recognize the work for the common good that is unrewarded in the market? Francis suggests we look at a universal basic income and a shorter week to enable greater participation in the labor market and society, and to help regenerate the natural world. These are the kinds of proposals we need now to explore.

4) Be synodal. If synodality is what God asks of the Church in the third millennium, as Francis famously said in October 2015, how can we move “not just occasionally, but structurally, towards a synodal Church, an open square where all can feel at home and participate,” as he put it at the synod launch just now? How can we review the way we operate and make decisions such that consultation, cooperation, and collaboration becomes part of our modus vivendi, operandi et cogitandi? How can we give everyone agency, make them subjects of their own futures? What does this mean for our work with the poor? How can we truly make this synod a moment for all, so that we create a Church for all, and through it, a world for all? How can we seize the signs, cooperate with the author of all that is, and make of this post-Covid moment truly an hour of the people?


[1]    16 November 2021, the Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time. Reading 1: Dn 12:1-3; Psalm: 16:5, 8-11; Reading 2: Heb 10:11-14, 18; Gospel: Mk 13:24-32. https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/111421.cfm

[2]    ‘Extraordinary moment of prayer’, 27 March, 2020, at vatican.va.

[3] Pope Francis, Let Us Dream: the Path to a Better Future. In conversation with Austen Ivereigh (New York: Simon & Schuster 2020, paperback 2021)

[4]    ‘Address for the opening of the synod’, October 9, 2021, at atican.va

[5]    ‘Vademecum for the Synod on Synodality’, Section 1.3, at synod.va

[6]   Austen Ivereigh, ‘Speak Boldly, Listen Carefully: Inside the Synod’, Commonweal, October 21, 2021, at commonwealmagazine.org

[7]    ‘Video Message of the Holy Father on the occasion of the Fourth World Meeting of Popular Movements (EMMP)’, October 16, 2021, at vatican.va

[8]    Ibid

[9]    Let Us Dream 44-45

[10] See the forthcoming volume by Zeger Polhuijs, Zygmunt Bauman and Pope Francis in Dialogue : The Labyrinth of Liquid Modernity (Lexington Books, 2022)

[11] Visit to the Pontifical University of Chile, Jan17, 2018.

[12] Let Us Dream 46-47.

[13] ‘Extraordinary moment of prayer’

[14] Document of Aparecida [DA] #11.

[15] Address, Basilica of St Mary of the Angels, Assisi, November 12, 2021

[16] Let Us Dream 122-3.

[17] Let Us Dream 25

[18] Let Us Dream 29-30

[19] Archbishop José Gómez, ‘Reflexiones sobre la Iglesia y las nuevas religiones de los Estados Unidos’, Nov. 4, 2021, at archbishopgomez.org.

[20] Video Message to participants in the international conference, “A Politics Rooted in the People,” April 15, 2021, at vatican.va

[21] Angus Ritchie, Inclusive Populism: Creating Citizens in the Global Age (Univ. Notre Dame Press, 2019)

Image: Vatican News

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Dr. Austen Ivereigh, a contributor to Where Peter Is, is Fellow in Contemporary Church History at Campion Hall, Oxford, the author of two major biographies of Pope Francis (The Great Reformer, 2014, and Wounded Shepherd, 2019) and his collaborator on the book Let Us Dream: the Path to a Better Future. Follow him on Twitter (@austeni) and his website (austeni.org).

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