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The Francis Factor: A review by Fr. Pat Rogers cp

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The Francis Factor:

This timely book, subtitled “A New Departure” takes a hope-filled look at Pope Francis’ first year in office, from the perspective of many writers, most of them Irish and Catholic. They were asked by the books editors (John Littleton and Eamon Maher) to comment on aspects of the Argentine pope’s words and gestures that they find significant, and make an assessment of the direction they think he is leading the catholic community. The result is a very readable set of essays that can be warmly recommended to all CORI members and indeed all who are interested in the current life of the Church.

Among the contributors are several journalists (John Waters, Michael Kelly, Brian D’Arcy, Sarah MacDonald and Colm Kenny); theologians Jim Corkery SJ, Tina Beattie, Timothy Radcliffe OP, Mary T. Malone and bishop Brendan Leahy; priests known for their passionate involvement in causes (e.g. Richard Rohr OFM, Seán McDonagh SSC, Peter McVerry SJ, John O’Connor SAC, Donald Cozzens, bishop emeritus Willie Walsh and Aidan Troy CP). A feminine perspective on the Francis Effect is also reflected in thoughtful pieces by Fainche Ryan, Louise Fuller, author of Irish Catholicism since 1950, and Louise Nelstrop from Sarum College, Salisbury. There is a foreword by Seán Brady, Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, and a fine essay his opposite number, Archbishop Richard Clarke, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh.

Seán Brady sets the tone by recalling the spirit of the conclave in March 2013, to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. “We were hoping that the Lord was calling to be Bishop of Rome one who can not oly enlighten minds but also set hearts on fire by his witness to Christian love, especially love for the poor . . . The Lord has heard the cry of the poor. He has given to the Church and to the world a pope who never tires of telling us that God never tires of showing mercy.”

In their introduction, editors Littleton and Maher list some of the questions explored in the book: What is the secret of the astonishing appeal of Pope Francis? Why do people warm so much to him? How has he changed people’s perception of the Catholic Church in just his first year as pope? Is his papacy more about style than substance? Is he really all that different in essence from his two predecessors? They offer a summary sketch of his influence to date, against the backdrop of his earlier reputation for conservatism and his recent emphasis on the Vatican II principle of coresponsibility within the People of God. A dramatic shift of emphasis was noted in his interview with Anthony Spadaro SJ, where he said: “We should not think that thinking with the Church means only thinking with the hierarchy.” Another widely-quoted dictum influencing “The Francis Effect” is where he said “What the Church needs today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful. It needs nearness, proximity.” At the same time they cite the cautionary note struck by Hans Küng who warned, “The credibility of Pope Francis will be immensely damaged if Vatican reactionaries stop him from soon translating his words into action.” Along with a generaly up-beat tone throughout this volume, Küng’s sober awareness that the Roman Curia could stifle much of the hope built up over the past year is echoed by some of the authors in the chapters that follow.

Rather than attempt to summarise each of the books 25 essays, I’ll just offer a flavour of some that drew my attention in particular ways, aware that the whole volume should be read from cover to cover. Let me start with John Waters’ essay. In the paradoxically-titled “Pope Francis and the Dictatorship of Tolerance” he applies to the pope and his two papal predecessors his familiar protest against modern journalism: that it creates rather than reports the story. His generalised overview of the media is very blunt: behind the facade of objective reporting they pursue an ideological mission. As these gatekeepers of modern culture tell their stories with “a mixture of ideological activism and professional peevishness,” their typical reporting of Benedict XVI branded him as God’s Rottweiler, the implacable enemy of progress, so that virtually his every word was “twisted beyond recognition.” To describe this prevailing media bias, Waters coins his damning phrase “the dictatorship of tolerance” and opines that the media reporting of Pope Francis is equally skewed, this time in the opposite direction. He feels that wildly optimistic hopes for change are being based on what are simply kindly gestures and amiable personality traits.

On the other hand, Fr Brian D’Arcy takes the transition from Pope Benedict to Pope Francis as the equivalent to “an ecclesiastical earthquake.” His expectations for this pontificate are very high indeed, to the extent of quickly rekindling his confidence that the Holy Spirit is in fact guiding the Church. In his piece entitled “The Francis Effect” he says how refreshing it is that the new pope “inhabits the same world as I do” and cites with gratitude examples of how “there is a palpable sense of hope not only within the Catholic Church but among other religions too.” Even the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Ephraim Mirvis, said admiringly that he would like to make the same impression on his community as Francis has done in his first year. Fr Brian goes on to sharply contrast some repressive, authoritiarian Roman curial procedures of recent years with what he hopes is a new era of dialogue and encouragement, as illustrated in Evangelii Gaudium. Whereas in the latter years some Church leaders had “hijacked the Gospel message of mercy and love”, replacing it with lifeless precepts from canon law, now we have a pope for whom the development of people’s gifts is more important than man-made rules. He goes so far as to say that “the Francis factor is changing the perception of the Church.” In his first year as pope he has created such a new atmosphere within the Church that it has raised all our aspirations and given us hope. His emphasis on pilgrimage and on the dignity of the individual is evocative of the optimism that pope (now Saint) John XXIII conveyed, at the start of the second Vatican Council.

Peter McVerry sj writes enthusiastically about Pope Francis and the Poor, and disagrees with those who think that the new pope is simply putting old wine into new wineskins. While he has not yet announced structural changes, he is offering a different understanding of our relationship with God, “a God whom people have been searching for but onften not finding within the Church.” People were thirsting for a God who cares, but were being fed a God who judges and condemns. The new focus on our caring God should have a profound effect on our spiritual lives, and on the way we live our lives. Another Jesuit, Jim Corkery sj, developes this theme by raising and answering the question “What can you expect from a Jesuit Pope?” It was clear from the start that Jorge Bergoglio “was not focused on how the job was done in Rome, but rather on how to do the job as himself.” In his training as a Jesuit he had learned to be self-critical and self-aware, to see himself as a sinner whom the Lord has graced, to accept the truth about himself and to approach life with a combination of realism and calm discernment. His Jesuit formation by means of the Spiritual Exercises will explain much of the dynamic in Pope Francis, “spilling out into a sharing of God’s love for the world, especially for its poor and abandoned.” In Fr Corkery’s view, the pope’s Jesuit background will shape his papal foreground. There will be continuity of doctrine, but “he will not reduce the faith to doctrinal statements along, as if Christianity were not a matter of praying and serving also…. He will not speak about moral issues in a way that loses sight of their connection with the heart of the faith.” And above all, the kind of change to be hope and expected from him will be more attitudinal than doctrinal.

There are fine pieces by Richard Rohr ofm (“Beautiful Morality: a one-man Vatican II”), by Timothy Radcliffe op (“Where is Pope Francis Leading us?”), Richard Clarke (“A New Pope: An Outside Appraisal”) and others – all equally worthy of reference as thos mentioned above. The professor of journalism, Colum Kenny, writes of Francis as “Affable and Unpredictable” and Michael Kelly, editor of The Irish Catholic, writes perceptively about “Pope Francis and the Challenge to Catholics,” asking us to go deeper in our assessment of his “ebryonically-transformative” papacy than the regular media reliance on sound-bites.  In a well-crafted chapter towards the end of the book, Aidan Troy cp gathers up from his churchgoers in the centre of Paris a variety of responses to the pope’s first year. It is clear that the same enthusiasm is felt for him among expatriate Catholics in Paris as is evident in Ireland. Feminine perspectives on the recent papacy are well expressed by Sarah MacDonald, Tina Beattie (“The Revolution of Tenderness”) Louise Nestrop (Models of Episcopal Leadership”), Mary Malone, Louise Fuller – and, leaving the last word to Fainche Ryan, we can echo the hopeful title of her essay: “The Times They Are A-Changing”.  Altogether a book well worth reading!

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