Misunderstanding Francis

Former Archbishop Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergogli0 (Pope Francis) riding the bus
File source unknown



THE letters in response to Understanding Francis couldn’t be more diverse. From those who said it was one of the most helpful articles on the Pope that they’ve read, to others warning that I am deceived. Yes, this is precisely why I have said over and over again that we are living in “dangerous days.” It is because Catholics are becoming more and more divided among themselves. There is a cloud of confusion, mistrust, and suspicion that continues to seep into the walls of the Church. That said, it is hard not to be sympathetic with some readers, such as one priest who wrote:

These are days of confusion. Our current Holy Father may well indeed be part of that very confusion. I say this for the following reasons:

The Pope speaks too often, too much off the cuff, and tends to be imprecise. He speaks in a non-dignified way for a Pope such as his quote: “I have never been a right-winger”. See the interview in America magazine. Or to say: “The Church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules…” Well, what exactly are these small-minded “rules”?

The mandatum is a case in point. Liturgical law is clear—only men partake in this ceremony [of washing feet]. The men represent the Apostles. When Francis arbitrarily ignored and violated this liturgical law, he set a very poor example. I can tell you many of us priests who have fought to implement and safeguard this practice were made fools of and the liberals now laugh at us for our insistence on following “small-minded” rules….

Fr. went on to say that the Pope’s words require too much explaining from people like me. Or as one commenter put it,

Benedict XVI intimidated the media because his words were like brilliant crystal. His successor’s words, no different in essence from Benedict’s, are like a fog. The more comments he produces spontaneously, the more he risks making his faithful disciples seem like the men with shovels who follow the elephants at the circus. 

But I think we forget too quickly what happened under the reign of Pope Benedict XVI. People grumbled that the “German Shepherd”, that Vatican inquisitor, had been raised to the seat of Peter. And then… out comes his first encyclical: Deus Caritas Est: God is Love. All of a sudden the media and liberal Catholics alike were praising the aged pontiff, postulating that this was a sign that the Church may soften her “rigid” moral positions. Likewise, when Benedict spoke about condom use among male prostitutes as a “first step toward moralization,” there was a huge leap in rationalization by the media that Benedict was changing the Church’s contraceptive position—and a hasty judgment by conservative Catholics that this was indeed the case. Of course, a calm reflection of what the Pope was actually saying revealed that nothing had or was going to change (see The Pope, a Condom, and the Purification of the Church).



We cannot deny that not only is there a certain paranoia in the pews, but that it is also perhaps well-founded. For decades, on a local level, the faithful were abandoned to dissident theologians, liberal clergy, and heretical teachings; to liturgical abuse, poor catechesis, and an eradication of the Catholic language: art and symbolism. In one generation, our Catholic identity was successfully wiped out in the Western world, only now being slowly restored by a remnant. Catholic priests and laymen alike feel betrayed and alone as the cultural tide continues to turn more and more against authentic Catholicism.

I have to agree with some that Pope Francis’ assessment that the Church has been ‘obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently’ [1]www.americamagazine.org does not readily apply to most people’s experience in North America, again on the local level. If anything, the lack of any clear teaching from the pulpit on contraception, abortion, and other moral issues on the forefront of societal change has resulted in what Pope Benedict XVI called a “dictatorship of relativism”:

…that recognizes nothing as definite, and which leaves as the ultimate measure only one’s ego and desires. Having a clear faith, according to the credo of the Church, is often labeled as fundamentalism. Yet, relativism, that is, letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching’, appears the sole attitude acceptable to today’s standards. —Cardinal Ratzinger (POPE BENEDICT XVI) pre-conclave Homily, April 18th, 2005

However, as I quoted in Understanding Francis, Benedict admitted that it’s the outside that often perceives the Church as “backwards” and “negative” and Catholicism as merely ‘“a collection of prohibitions”’. There needs to be an emphasis, he said, on the “Good News.” Francis has taken up this theme with a greater urgency.

And I believe our present Holy Father continues to be misunderstood because he, perhaps more than anything else, is a prophet.



The great sickness in the Catholic Church today is that we no longer evangelize for the most part, let alone comprehend what the word “evangelization” even means. And yet, the Great Commission Christ gave us was precisely to “make disciples of all nations.” [2]cf. Matt 28:19 Who was listening when John Paul II cried out…

God is opening before the Church the horizons of a humanity more fully prepared for the sowing of the Gospel. I sense that the moment has come to commit all of the Church’s energies to a new evangelization and to the mission ad gentes. No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples. —Redemptoris Missio, n. 3

This is a radical statement: “all energies.” And yet, can we say that the churches dedicated themselves in prayer and discernment to fulfill this task with all their energies? The answer is fairly clear, which is why Pope Benedict did not depart from this theme, but recognizing the late hour, placed it in a more urgent context in a letter to the world’s bishops:

In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai; to that God whose face we recognize in a love which presses “to the end” (cf. Jn 13:1)—in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. —Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to All the Bishops of the World, March 10, 2009; Catholic Online

There is a grave error among some Catholics today in adopting a “bunker mentality”, a self-preservationist mindset that it’s time to head for the hills and hunker down until the Lord purifies the earth of all wickedness. But woe to those whom the Master finds hiding themselves and their “talents” in the corners of the vineyard! For the harvest is ripe! Listen to precisely why Blessed John Paul felt the time ripe for a new evangelization:

The number of those who do not know Christ and do not belong to the Church is constantly on the increase. Indeed, since the end of the Council it has almost doubled. When we consider this immense portion of humanity which is loved by the Father and for whom he sent his Son, the urgency of the Church’s mission is obvious… our own times offer the Church new opportunities in this field: we have witnessed the collapse of oppressive ideologies and political systems; the opening of frontiers and the formation of a more united world due to an increase in communications; the affirmation among peoples of the gospel values which Jesus made incarnate in his own life (peace, justice, brotherhood, concern for the needy); and a kind of soulless economic and technical development which only stimulates the search for the truth about God, about man and about the meaning of life itself.Redemptoris Missio, n. 3

This is all to say that, contrary to what is being said in the media and by some Catholics, Pope Francis is not leading the Church in any kind of new direction. He is, rather, making it perfectly clear.



Shortly before his election, Pope Francis (Cardinal Bergoglio ) prophetically said to his fellow cardinals in the General Congregation meetings:

To evangelize implies a desire in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries not only in the geographic sense but also the existential peripheries: those of the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance, of doing without religion, of thought and of all misery. When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referent and then she gets sick… The self-referent Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him come out… Thinking of the next Pope, he must be a man that from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to come out to the existential peripheries, that helps her to be the fruitful mother who lives from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.Salt and Light Magazine, p. 8, Issue 4, Special Edition, 2013

Lo and behold, on March 13th, 2013, the papal conclave elected a man who spends each evening in “contemplation and adoration” of the Holy Eucharist; who has a strong devotion to Mary; and who like our Master himself, has a knack for continually surprising his hearers.

Again, there shouldn’t really be any surprise at all regarding the new Pope’s direction: the papacy has been consistently calling every Catholic, since Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, to a radical witness of the faith. “The Church exists to evangelize,” he said. [3]Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 14 What is now “new,” if it is new at all, is that Pope Francis is stating emphatically that we are not taking this Commission as seriously as we should. And that the world won’t take us seriously until we demonstrate our unity with Christ’s simplicity, obedience, and spirit of poverty.

Thus, most recently, Francis is calling the Church to a renewed focus of her priorities. This demands seeing the potential for Christ in everyone, for recognizing a ‘humanity more fully prepared for the sowing of the Gospel.’ [4]Redemptoris Missio, n. 3

I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God. —POPE FRANCIS, America, September, 2013

Some conservative Catholics are panicked because all of a sudden the “liberals”, “homosexuals” and “deviants” are praising the Pope. Others see the Pope’s uncontextualized remarks as a sign that at last the apostasy is reaching its climax and the Pope is in cahoots with the Antichrist. But even some in the liberal media have recognized no such shift in the Church’s teaching.

[Pope Francis] didn’t right past wrongs. Let’s be clear about that. Didn’t call for substantive change to church teachings and traditions that indeed demand re-examination, including the belief that homosexual acts themselves are sinful. Didn’t challenge the all-male, celibate priesthood. Didn’t speak as progressively — and fairly — about women’s roles in the church as he should. —Frank Bruni, New York Times, September 21, 2013

Didn’t—and can’t, at least on those subjects rooted immuatably in the natural and moral law. [5]On the contrary, the Holy Father did address the subject of women in the Church, and the need to look deeper into involving the “feminine genius”. See his interview in America. Any man married to a good woman will greet the Pope’s insight with a nodding head.



It is true that Francis’ remarks are not always contextualized and that he frequently leaves his pre-written texts to speak from the heart. But that does not mean that the Pope is, therefore, speaking in the flesh! The Holy Spirit is spontaneous, blowing where he wills. The prophets were such people, and for this, they were stoned by their own people. If it’s getting the Pope into hot water, then I’m sure he’ll hear about it. And if he says something that does in fact appear to be doctrinally unclear, he will be required to clarify it, as millions of faithful, including fellow bishops, will make certain. But in 2000 years, no pope has every pronounced ex cathedra a doctrine contrary to the faith. We need to trust in the Holy Spirit, who continues to guide us “into all truth.” [6]cf. John 16:13

It is not the Pope, but the media who are leaving elephant sized droppings in his path. And Catholics are to blame as well. There is a somewhat significant group of otherwise faithful people in the Church who are more intent on following certain private revelations and even false prophecies that say this Pope (irregardless of the facts) is an anti-pope. [7]see Possible… or Not? As such, they are casting great doubt and suspicion on the papacy generating confusion and paranoia in undiscerning souls.

But there are also Catholics—faithful conservative Catholics—who have read the Pope’s words and understood them, precisely because they too are immersed in “contemplation and adoration.” If Catholics spent more time in prayer and listening to the Spirit, in taking the time to digest entire texts and encyclicals rather than sound bytes and headlines, then they would in fact hear the voice of the Shepherd speaking. No, Jesus has not ceased speaking to or guiding His Church. Our Lord is still in the boat, even if He seems to be sleeping.

And He is calling us to wake up.






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1 www.americamagazine.org
2 cf. Matt 28:19
3 Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 14
4 Redemptoris Missio, n. 3
5 On the contrary, the Holy Father did address the subject of women in the Church, and the need to look deeper into involving the “feminine genius”. See his interview in America. Any man married to a good woman will greet the Pope’s insight with a nodding head.
6 cf. John 16:13
7 see Possible… or Not?
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