John Allen, Jr. On Pope Francis' First YearPlay
One year ago this month, the Catholic Church chose a new pope. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio ushered in a surprising new era for the church — an era he introduced in choosing his papal name, one of his first acts as pontiff. He chose Francis, in honor of the medieval Italian saint dedicated to humility and the poor.
More change was to come. On Holy Thursday last year, Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 juvenile detainees, including two women and two Muslims. He took a selfie. He declared himself not a "right winger". And said that if someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, "Who am I to judge?"
The sea change in tone and style has made Francis an astonishingly popular pope. But in the end, do the scales tip towards symbolism or substance? And what does Pope Francis's first year mean for the future of the Catholic Church — an institution itself, not prone to radical and sudden change?
John Allen, Jr., author of nine books on the Catholic Church, and an associate editor at The Boston Globe. He tweets at @JohnLAllenJr.
On the selection of Pope Francis:
John Allen, Jr: "To be honest with you, Meghna, my first reaction was frustration because I was on a CNN set trying to tell this story to the world and when the Cardinal — Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran — came out to do what we call the Habemus Papam announcement — that is, the announcement of the new Pope's name — we lost audio. So, I saw the Cardinal's lips moving but I had no idea what name he was giving us. So, for 30 seconds of agony, I was desperately trying to figure out who the next Pope actually was. Fortunately, there was a Mexican TV crew behind us that was shouting, 'Bergolio! Bergolio!' So, I had a clue. After that, to be honest with you, I was floored by the choice of name. Let's remember that the first decision any Pope ever makes is what name he's going to be called by. The way this works, inside the conclave, is once a candidate crosses that magic two-thirds threshold, the senior Cardinal will approach him and say to him, 'Do you accept your election as the supreme Pontiff?' The moment he says yes, he's the Pope."
"The next question is, 'By what name shall you be known?' So it is by definition the first choice he ever makes. And I'll be honest with you, I have interviewed church historians over the years who have said there could never be a Pope Francis, for the same reasons there could never be a Pope Jesus or Pope Peter, that these were singular and unrepeatable figures in the life of the church. But more than that, to be honest, I was astonished at the boldness of it. Because the name Francis is a whole program of governance in miniature. This iconic figure in the Catholic imagination that awakens these images of the antithesis of the institutional church — that is, the charismatic leadership. Close to the earth, close to the poor, simplicity and humility. That's an awful lot of weight to put on your shoulders right out of the gate. If you're not prepared to walk that talk, then you're going to be in real trouble. Francis, however, during his first year, has convincingly walked the talk."
On Francis' suitability for the modern world:
JA: "I think one of the striking things is, it's not as if Pope Francis is the first Pope who's ever been popular. I mean, I followed John Paul II all around the world. I was with him in Mexico when he had crowds around 7 million people. I was with him in Manila in the Philippines when he had 5 million, I was at his funeral mass in 2005 when 5 million more showed up. And Benedict, in his own way, in terms of the insider Catholic world, certainly has a following. I think what's unique about Francis is that, if anything, he is at least as popular, and potentially even more popular, outside the church rather than in it. I mean, he is a figure who seems ideally suited to engage with this post-modern secular world that no longer speaks religious language and has a hard time swallowing religious concepts. He uses a kind of language and, because of perceptions of his personal integrity, he carries a kind of moral authority that somehow allows him to transcend those boundaries and become a credible dialogue partner for the whole world."
On the criticism that this year has been more about style than substance:
JA: "It depends on how you define substance. If by substance you mean changing the doctrine of the Catholic Church then it's a perfectly accurate criticism because the Pope has not changed a single comma in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is its official code of teaching. And on the hot button issues that tend to excite the western mind, things like women priests or abortion, gay marriage, contraception, he has made it repeatedly clear he's not going to be making any changes. But I think the point is you can change the Catholic Church profoundly without changing its official teaching. One, he's created much more space for flexible pastoral application of doctrine — that is, translating that official teaching into practice at the retail level, in parishes and so on."
"The other thing he's done is that he's pushed the church, kicking and screaming, in the direction of real structural change on matters such as transparency, accountability and what you might call good governance. He just created an entirely new finance structure in the Vatican, appointed a tough as nails Cardinal to run the thing who has the mind of a theologian and the instincts of a linebacker. This guy is basically Brian Urlacher in a cassock, OK? And he's going to push through significant change. and all of that may not have the sex appeal of inviting three homeless guys up to his breakfast, but I'll tell you, there is no way to break the grip of the old guard in the Vatican more thoroughly than by taking away their power of the purse and, in effect, that's what Francis has done. So, if your definition of substance is changing church teaching then, no, there hasn't been substantive change. If you understand that there are a truckload of ways to engineer structural change in the Catholic Church without changing teaching, then yes. This is a historically significant structural change agent."
The Boston Globe: Many Points Of Praise For Pope’s First Year
- "By taking the name Francis, the new pope awakened images of St. Francis, the beloved poor man of Assisi. He then knelt to ask the crowd to pray for him before imparting his official blessing, seemingly inaugurating a new era of papal humility."
This segment aired on March 25, 2014.