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I was relaxing with a beer in hand – and then out stepped Pope Francis

We can expect our new Holy Father to shake things up

By on Thursday, 14 March 2013

This morning's newspapers in Argentina (AP)

This morning's newspapers in Argentina (AP)

Last Sunday I was invited to contribute to the Radio Four Sunday Programme. You can hear my contribution here, at about 13 minutes in. In a discussion about the Church’s loss of moral authority, I opined that the loss of prestige that the clerical caste faced was not necessarily a disaster if it served to make us more humble and accessible, and that we needed to be more like Francis of Assisi, and less like some Renaissance popes.

Cut to Wednesday, when, a beer in hand, I watched white smoke on the television in a London bar. I was expecting a long conclave. This was not the plan, not my plan, anyway. And then it came – a Pope called Francis.

Why Francis? He clearly wants us to understand something in this revolutionary choice of name, so this is what I understand.

St Francis was a great Church reformer. He was the one who answered the call from God: “Francis, rebuild my Church”. The pope of the day recognised in Francis the humble friar who, in his dream, had stopped the Lateran Basilica, the Pope’s own cathedral, falling down. Pope Francis clearly sees that the Church needs reform, moral reform.

St Francis was a layman for most of his life, and accepted ordination as a deacon only because the hierarchy of the time insisted. He was more of less rejected by the order that sprang from his movement. He represents the charismatic part of the Church rather than its institutional form. Expect Pope Francis to be an anti-clerical Pope. This may well mean someone who takes a new broom to the corridors of power in the Vatican.

St Francis was called to evangelise the world, and Pope Francis mentioned evangelising Rome in his opening words. Expect an evangelical Pope, one committed to evangelising his own diocese. St Francis longed to evangelise the Islamic world too. He went to see the Sultan of Egypt, in order to convert him. He was received in a friendly manner, though there was no conversion. But the message may well be that Pope Francis seeks an opening of understanding to other faiths, and indeed to those of no faith. St Francis is the patron of ecologists, an inspiration to many Greens, and indeed long revered by sections of the Italian Left, an inspiration to many Reds too.

St Francis is the patron saint of Italy – il più santo degli italiani, il più italiano dei santi, as Pius XII once said: the most saintly of Italians, the most Italian of saints. Pope Francis is not Italian, but he is the son of Italian parents and he speaks the language perfectly. For the Italians this is almost as good as the Papacy returning home to Italy, where many of them think it belongs.

As I pointed out in another forum Pope Francis is the third Pope to come from the industrial working class. His father was a railwayman. Pius X’s father was a post office worker, and John Paul I’s was a bricklayer. Saint Francis came from a prosperous town dwelling merchant family, but he turned his back on all that to become a poor man. One can expect our new Holy Father to be a man of poverty. He certainly comes from a country where many are poor, and he will have huge sympathy with the poor.

With all this in mind, I think it is fair to say that interesting times lie ahead!

  • Mikethelionheart

    Great article.

    Great performance on NewsNight last night.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Mikethelionheart

    “If we do not confess to Christ, what would we be? We would end up a compassionate NGO. What would happen would be like when children make sand castles and then it all falls down.”

    I love this guy already.

  • CullenD

    I know I’m being a damp squib, I also think Francis will do good things as Pope, but you can’t expect too much. A recent election of a U.S. president shows that it might not be so. Please ignore the HHS mandate, in this, I understand how it’s difficult, but let talk of general reform of an entrenched system.

    In the past the problems he would have faced, as pope, were insurmountable. The harsh glare of the media have now made his task necessary, but still almost impossible. In the most simple terms, he comes from a place of responisibilty to people. He now has to change a group reliant on bureaucracy. 

    Pope Francis may well be the first pontiff to use the media to his advantage. All the media, not just fawning reports on his foreign visits If he works well, just as Obama failed to be a great President, Francis can be a Great Pope. 

    Let’s not stymie the man with unreal expectations, he can only do the possible, and much of that will be hard fought. 

    Remember.. I don’t think he has a direct line to a god!!!! If you think his job is difficult, I think it’s harder.

  • NatOns

    God Bless Our Pope! A genuine Papa Poverello indeed, and a sincere, worthy and faithful apostle already (a minor-miracle to worldly eyes in itself).

    Who knows even the dead wood of the Age-of-Aquarius – with its deadening weight, dressed up as the ‘spirit’ of VCII or Tradition – still dragging down the Church may even now sprout anew and this time fruitfully .. or at least begin to respond to treatment: what a miracle that would be, no doubt.

  • Just_a_simpleton

    But why didn’t you dress as a priest Father? I missed the introductions and was wondering who the layman was sitting next to the priest, when your name was given. We’re living in strange times when the Jesuit priest is identified by his clerical attire, and the priest from the Catholic Herald looks like a throw back to the “call me Alex” type of priest from the 1970s.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Because I was in the bar when they called me and I did not have tjme to go back home and change, that is why. The last time I was on Newsnight, I was properly dressed. In fact this time I was in London enjoying my day off when events overtook me….

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith


  • Just_a_simpleton

    Thank you for your explanation Father. I’m pleased to hear that you hadn’t made a deliberate choice to go on the programme in ‘civvies’ …even if your being interviewed while wearing them nevertheless raises other questions…

  • James Moriarty

    Of course, as a Jesuit, he would also have had St Francis Xavier in mind.

  • James Moriarty

    You’re allowed to wear a black shirt and dog collar on your day off, surely? No man knoweth the hour when he may be called to appear on the BBC.

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

    “…..he can only do the possible,..”

    WHY DO YOU SAY that he can do only the possible?

    WHY, CAN’T HE BE AN APOSTLE LIKE PETER, is he not Peter’s successor and the Representative of the LORD on earth?

    Through Peter Jesus did the “impossible” when with faith in the LORD
    Peter commanded the crippled beggar at the gate of the temple called “the
    Beautiful Gate” saying, “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you :
    In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk.” and the crippled
    Beggar walked. Acts. 3:1-10.

    JESUS THE LORD whom our Pope worships and represents has said, “everything
    is possible for God”. His requirement is FAITH.

    When People in authority do not exercise their TRUE MINISTRY, IT DIES and they
    end up as mere figureheads and laughing stock. These can then perform only dead
    rituals which serve as traps for the ignorant, easy-going and the lazy.

    I PRAY that all our POPES starting with POPE FRANCIS become TRUE APOSTLES like Peter and others. ONLY THEN THEY BECOME CREDIBLE in the eyes of the world and people.

    This is possible WHEN OUR POPE’S FIRST PRIORITY is that of The Lord and of his Apostles: PROCLAMATION OF THE WORD OF SALVATION, first and foremost. For this we need to go to the Gospels to find out what Jesus the Lord and the Apostles actually DID to uphold this priority.

    One day when Jesus was busy with the work of his heavenly father, the disciples came and told him, “many people are looking for you.” The Lord just ignored them and said, “Let us go to other villages, there also I have to Proclaim the Word. For this is why I have come”.

    The disciples wanted the Lord to do some social work and thus keep him busy in it.
    Serving the Institution, counting money, ruling over people and nations, building homes, settling disputes, helping the poor and serving them in their needs are secondary. The Apostles did not want to get lost in these.

    Can those who SUCCEED the Apostles afford to do otherwise?

    AS FOR OUR POPE, HE REPRESENTS The Lord Himself through his SUCCESSION of the office of Peter.

    It happened in this way with the Apostles. There was complaint brought before the Apostles from the widows of the Greeks against the widows of people of Jewish origin with regard to partiality done by the distributors of bread in favour of the Jewish widows. The Apostles called for a meeting and said to the people, “To do this work we need some of you who are good and respectable. This is not our work. Our work is Prayer and the Proclamation of the Word of God”.

    THE APOSTLES DID THE IMPOSSIBLE when they healed the crippled beggar by commanding him in the name of Jesus the Lord.

    OUR GOD IS THE GOD OF THE IMPOSSIBLE; for “Everything is possible for God”, this truth is based on the authority of Jesus the Lord himself.

    Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

  • Patrick T

    Yes, ALL THINGS are possible for one that believes! Mark 9:23. It is distressing that there can be such a dearth of faith even within the Church. If we all prayed with great faith for a new springtime within the Curia the Lord would surely respond . Let’s try it!

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

    Unless foundational importance is given to GOD’S WORD, the institutional Church will go into decay more and more and the Sacraments will end up as empty shells.

    The Sacraments are sacraments because of THE WORD OF GOD.

    THE WORD OF GOD is foundational, fundamental. In the degree The Word of God is listened to and digested, the Sacraments become useful.

    People must learn to appreciate the Word of God which gives birth to Faith. In Faith when People act, when they obey thus the Word of God, signs of the Kingdom appear. This is what the Lord referred to as “MY WORKS”, which were also present in the life and activities of the Lord’s Apostles.

    The Lord said to his opponents, “if you don’t believe my words, at least look at my works…”

    The WORD OF GOD only convicts people of the sin in them; the Scribes and the Pharisees and the rest of the combo were not convicted of their sins by not listening to the Baptist and so they also kept away from the Baptism he gave to people. This neglect of theirs deprived them of Jesus the Savior himself.

    The same is the case with Christians in general especially of those belonging to the Big Churches which keep thew people occupied with so many things…. but not THE WORD OF GOD.

    Listening to the Word from the lips of True Apostles, Meditating on the Word with purified hearts make us worthy of Jesus the Lord. He himself is the KINGDOM.

    The Lord told us, warning us especially of a particular kind of teaching, calling it out and revealing it as, “the leaven of the Pharisees”. This keeps the people in bondage and away from the Lord, and from the experience of the Lord. We need to listen only to APOSTLES, True Apostles and not to mere Priest and Leaders. And such true Apostles are found today also in the Church of Peter, the Catholic Christian People.

    Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

  • Patrick T

    This is the real danger in the Church, ‘the leaven of the Pharisees’. It is pernicious and, sadly, there is so much of it around. We need to humble ourselves, cling to the Word of God and be merciful as Pope Francis entreats us to be.