Getting to know the Pope "from the ends of the earth"

In the first of a two-part assessment of the challenge set out by Pope Francis, Bishop Kevin Doran explores what the Pope "from the ends of the earth" means by "mission"

Pope Francis waves to the waiting crowd from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican after his election on March 13 2013
Pope Francis waves to the waiting crowd from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican after his election on March 13 2013

THERE do sometimes seem to be two or three quite different profiles of Pope Francis. One is the smiling, spontaneous pastor who is just as comfortable fielding questions as he is jumping up to catch a baseball in St Peter's Square.

Another is the tough, no-nonsense leader who is seriously intent on reforming the Church and seems more than ready to take on anyone who stands in the way.

A third is the preacher and teacher who, in many respects, does not differ radically from his predecessors.

For some, who see Francis in all of these dimensions, he is something of an enigma; others, of course, only see the Francis who fits in with their own preconceived notions.

There is no doubt about the fact that Pope Francis has a very real warmth about him. I met him very briefly last year at what we call the 'baby bishops course'.

We had been warned that, as there were about 150 of us, he would be unable to engage in lengthy conversation with each of us. "Keep it brief" was the message.

I was probably face-to-face with him for no more than 30 seconds. I spoke briefly and he didn't say anything.

But when I looked back over the photographs afterwards, what surprised me was the difference in his facial expression in each photograph. He does body language very well.

There is, I suppose, a risk that Francis would be perceived as "style without substance", while other Popes might be remembered as "substance without style".

I don't think either of those perceptions measures up to the reality. Karol Wojtyla, Josef Ratzinger and Jorge Bergoglio, while they share one faith and one mission, are three individual human beings, each with his own personal history, his own style and his own take on what it means to be Pope.

I was in South Africa on sabbatical when Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation and all through the sede vacante period I found myself thinking how far away Rome seemed.

Pope John Paul II, on the day of his election, described himself as "A man from a far country".

Pope Francis echoed this description when he referred to himself as a Pope "from the ends of the earth".

But this is not just a geographical or even a cultural characterisation. It identifies Francis with the disciples who, on the day of the Ascension were told by Jesus that they would be his witnesses "to the ends of the earth".

Francis is a Pope whose roots are in a faith community which is the fruit of that "witness to the ends of the earth".

Already in his writing and in his preaching, he has spoken of his vision of the Church governed by "a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church's customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today's world, rather than for her self-preservation".

The kind of mission Pope Francis speaks of is not necessarily overseas; in fact it is not really about 'place' but how Christians can be witnesses of faith rather than consumers of religion.

A couple of months after Pope Francis was elected, I had an interesting conversation with a parishioner.

She was concerned that I was moving too fast and that some of the changes I wanted to make in the parish might upset people.

I suggested that, having discussed the changes in some detail and presented them to the people, I now had the responsibility, as the person responsible for the parish, to implement them.

It was about leadership. I thought her response was interesting. She said: "But have you not been listening to Pope Francis. All that leadership stuff is finished."

It is certainly true that Francis likes to challenge people to work through things for themselves. That may be a rather unique and less direct style of leadership but, make no mistake about it, Francis is leading.

Recently I went for a walk in Lough Key Forest Park in Co Roscommon.

I overheard what might be described as an animated discussion between a mother and father and their two children.

The children had been fishing with nets along the lake shore and they had caught a few tiny fish, which they put into a jar and brought back to the picnic table.

They were making the case for bringing the fish home with them. The parents could simply have said: "No - go and put them back in the lake."

But they didn't do that; instead they explained to the children about natural habitat and how these fish were much better off in the lake: "What are you going to do with them? If you bring them home, they will die. Now is that really what you want?"

The children were invited to admire the fish for a few moments, to reflect on the consequences of their actions, to have compassion, and then to put the fish back where they belonged.

This is not unlike the approach that Pope Francis takes in Laudato Si, his recent encyclical letter on the care of the environment.

Most of us don't think of a Papal Encyclical as bedtime reading. I was chaplain in UCD when Pope John Paul II's encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialiso, 'On Social Concern', was published and I found myself saying to students: "You really should read it, it's very good."

In much the same way Laudato Si is a really good read and it is really challenging. In the course of over a hundred pages of text, Pope Francis explores the essential connection between the ownership of natural resources, the regulation of banks, animal experimentation, unemployment, genetic modification, consumerism, respect for life, poverty, prayer and politics.

The title of the encyclical, Laudato Si - 'Praised be You' - is taken from the opening words of St Francis of Assisi's Canticle of the Creatures and Pope Francis returns on a number of occasions to the idea that created nature tends to open up in us a spirit of wonder and awe in God's presence bringing with it the invitation to praise God, not only in prayer but also in the way in which we live in "our common home".

Alongside this, however, there is a very clear call for conversion. His analysis of the ecological crisis is expressed in language with which Pope Benedict would have been very familiar.

"Relativism" he says, is at the root of the ecological crisis, as it is at the root of every moral disorder.

Another word for this relativism which may be more familiar to us is 'individualism'.

"When human beings place themselves at the centre," the Pope says, "they give priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative."

"The culture of relativism," he says "is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts."

In a comment which might almost seem to have been written for Ireland, but which in reality has a much more global significance, Pope Francis argues that "there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life.

"Saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, forgoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system, only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system, a power which has no future and will only give rise to new crises after a slow, costly and only apparent recovery."

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago once defined Christian morality as being like the "seamless garment of Christ".

By this he meant that one cannot just have part of it: you either have it or you don't.

In a similar vein, Pope Francis quotes his predecessor, Pope Benedict, who said "the world cannot be analysed by isolating only one of its aspects, since 'the book of nature is one and indivisible' and includes the environment, sexuality, the family, social relations and so forth."

Francis rejects any attempt to isolate the environmental question from its human context, pointing out that, alongside a "green rhetoric" there is often a total lack of realism about how political and economic decisions, through their impact on the environment, so often have grave effects on those who depend most immediately on nature for their livelihood.

This time last year, Pope Francis was asked by a group of journalists about his attitude towards gay people.

Most people will have heard that the Pope's reply was: "Who am I to judge?"

What Pope Francis actually said was a little more nuanced than that: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"

Either way, the Pope's response was frequently used in recent months to suggest that Francis, because of his compassionate stance, would be liberal in his views on same-sex marriage.

But that would be to suggest that there is a conflict between compassion and truth. The reality, in fact, is that Christians are called both to exercise compassion and to act in accordance with the truth.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that people of homosexual orientation "must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity" and that "every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided".

It is not for us to judge people, but that doesn't mean that we should not make objective moral judgments.

The same Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical, calls for coherence in our respect for nature.

He argues that it makes no sense to speak of respect for physical nature if we do not include in this the physical nature of our own humanity. Our bodies are the means of contact with the natural environment.

"Acceptance of our bodies as God's gift", he argues, "is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father.

"Valuing one's own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognise myself in an encounter with someone who is different."

In much the same vein, he points out: "Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of human nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.

"How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable or creates difficulties?"

From the moment of his first appearance on the Loggia of St Peter's Basilica, the ministry of Pope Francis has been a call to conversion, both in attitude and in action.

It is easy enough, in many respects to carry out a sociological or ecological analysis and to identify, at a superficial level, what is wrong with the world.

Here, I want to introduce a note of caution. When I say superficial, I don't mean unimportant or irrelevant, but simply that we need to go deeper, beneath the surface, to understand the causes of the problems we face and to find the solutions.

For Pope Francis violence, poverty, unemployment, homelessness, the degradation of the environment and the absence of clean water, the breakdown of family and the loss of a sense of community are only symptoms of a deeper malaise.

"Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change," he writes in Laudato Si.

"We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone.

"This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life.

"A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal."

:: Dr Kevin Doran is the Bishop of Elphin. This is abridged from an address called 'Pope Francis: Sociological Analysis or Evangelical Discernment' which he gave at the Percy French Summer School at Castlecoote, Co Roscommon in July. The second part of Dr Doran's assessment of Pope Francis will feature in Faith matters next week.