On the flight back from Rio, Pope Francis offered a modest assessment of his papacy so far. “It’s true,” he said, “that I haven’t done very much.” In a sense, he’s right: many of the problems identified by the cardinals before his election six months ago today remain. He has yet to overhaul the Vatican bank, shake up the Roman Curia, impose strong global norms on the handling of abuse allegations, speed up episcopal appointments or strengthen the Synod of Bishops.
The Group of Eight cardinals that he appointed to advise him in April hasn’t even met yet. But if we were to judge his papacy so far solely on institutional reforms we would be missing the wider picture. In just six months Pope Francis has recorded a remarkable achievement: he has forced people all over the world to re-examine their prejudices about the Catholic Church.
He challenged jaded perceptions of Catholicism with the very first words of his papacy: that informal, courteous and personal greeting, “Buona sera!” He quickly followed this address with a series of gestures that emphasised his normality: taking the bus back from the conclave with his fellow cardinals, paying his hotel bill and ringing his newspaper vendor in Buenos Aires to cancel his order.
His message was startling, but not at all solemn: the Holy Father, like everyone else, has to live out his Christian calling in everyday life. In this he is following the spiritual guidance of Thérèse of Lisieux, one of his favourite saints, who once said: “Do ordinary things in an extraordinary way.”
It is hard to quantify the impact of Pope Francis’s first six months, because they haven’t been defined by a series of high-powered executive decisions, but rather by a way of being.
John Paul II’s Herculean missionary journeys and Benedict XVI’s heroic defence of the very foundations of Catholic belief have prepared the way for a Pope of everyday life, who sets us the daily challenge of rising above our own mediocrity and being true Christians where we live and to those we meet.