March 13, 2018, marked the fifth anniversary of the election of Pope Francis; he is the first Jesuit pope, the first from the Americas, the first from the southern hemisphere, and the first from outside of Europe since the Syrian Gregory III, who reigned in the 8th century.
Without a doubt, the first five years of this unique pontificate have seen the realization of the dream of St. John XXIII. St. John, when he so wisely and joyfully convened Vatican II on January 25, 1959, had a vision. Pope Francis is making it a reality: his unique style of ministry has brought fresh air and renewal to the Church.
As the Greek philosopher Protagoras said: “Man is the measure of all things.” And the style that Francis has imprinted on his pontificate reflects the essence of his own humanity, his Christian, priestly and Jesuit life.
This essence can be summarized in three words: nearness, humility and mercy.
Better still, a single sentence captures the core of this papal reign: The pontificate of Francis has been a ministry of nearness, humility and compassion.
This pontificate has been near to the realities that Francis himself calls peripheral realities, both geographically and human, pertaining to the whole of society as well as to the ecclesial community itself. These are peripheral realms where those most in need of the light of the Gospel and the compassionate and merciful love of God live and suffer; Pope Francis insists that the Church’s disciples of Christ are called to convey God’s love to those discriminated against in a thousand ways—because of their creed, race, origins, sexual identity; these are the poor among the poor, the marginalized, the rejected, the impoverished, migrants, the divorced, etc.
It is this closeness to the realities of all men and women around the world from which Pope Francis understands the catholicity or universality of the Church. It is a closeness that translates into dialogue and openness to all the realities of the individual and the realities of all people.
This pontificate is humble, simple, transparent, open, frank, coherent—a friend to all. This is the personality of the man Jorge Mario Bergoglio, which is lived out and manifested in all the deeds and words of Pope Francis. They are many—his gestures; they are novel, austere, refreshing, disrupting, prophetic and full of the joyful and humble evangelical meaning that Francis has delivered throughout these five years in charge of the Church.
These are gestures that—in coherent fashion—accompany all of Francis’ talks and homilies; there is the acknowledgement of himself as a sinner and his consistent acknowledgement of the sins of the Church; his constant petition for us to pray for him; the choice of his papal residence and the car in which he travels; there is his closeness to the sick and incarcerated, as shown in the washing of their feet on Holy Thursday; the choice of his vestments and ornaments; the manner of his presentation as the Bishop of Rome; his vindication as a man of the common people, etc. His is a humble closeness to all of humanity that is recognized by the entire world and paid tribute to by the hundreds of covers of the most important magazines around the world.
This papacy is merciful: compassion and mercy most particularly characterize the revelation of the love of God for human beings shown by Jesus of Nazareth. If one thing characterizes the exercise of Peter’s ministry by Pope Francis, it is his insistence on mercy in all his gestures and all his preaching. Mercy is so characteristic of the life and work of Francis that, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the closing of Vatican II, he called on the whole Church on March 13, 2015, to celebrate an extraordinary Holy Year and Jubilee of Mercy.
This distinct personality and nearness to the marginalized—this ministry that is both humble and compassionate—does not impede or diminish Pope Francis’ authority, wisdom, strength, determination and courage to push for (and face opposition to) the radical reforms that are urgently needed within the Vatican Curia and the Catholic Church at large.
This spirit of humility and compassionate closeness to those most in need of God’s love is of course evident and manifest in all the writings of this pontificate, the hundreds of talks, letters, homilies, etc. Add to these his messages delivered during his pastoral travels and in his larger texts. Among them these stand out:
Laudato si (On Care for our Common Home)
Lumen Fidei (on the Light of Faith)
The Apostolic Exhortations:
Amoris Laetitia (on love in the family)
Evangelii Gaudium (on the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world).
Nothing remains, but to:
Celebrate and express our gratitude with enormous joy and Christian jubilation for the blessings given to the world and to the Church during these first five years of the pontificate of Francis.
Ask that there be many more years to come, in which—as the head of the Church—Francis will accompany us with his humble and compassionate nearness.
Respond to his constant request to pray for him, so that God may grant him wisdom, health and strength in his Petrine ministry.
Follow him, listen to him and try to imitate him in pursuing the authentic Christian life.
Fr Gerard, CSsR