THE FRANCIS FACTOR by Bill O'Shea

The Catholic Church received a much needed breath of fresh air in March 2012 when the Jesuit Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was elected Pope and took the name of Francis I.  As the first anniversary of his election draws near, it is of course far too early to evaluate the overall impact of his papacy on the church and the world, but the early indications have put a spring in the step of most catholics.

Late last year (2013) Pope Francis issued a lengthy "Apostolic Exhortation" with the title Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).  It spells out in some detail his hopes and plans for the church, building on the bits and pieces which he had released earlier in talks and interviews.

He has said that he wants to change the culture of the church, its priorities and structures.  He wants a church that engages with the world, and is prepared to get its hands and feet dirty in its outreach to the poor, the powerless and the oppressed.

Francis is clearly an environmentalist, saying that the church must communicate God's message of care for the whole of God's creation.  He writes: "We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us".  As with other issues, his outlook is one of joy and optimism.

Like his predecessors, Popes Paul, John Paul and Benedict, Francis insists that the key aim of the church, indeed its reason for existence, is evangelisation.  Typically though, he gives the term a new emphasis and direction.  Certainly there is no suggestion that he sees evangelisation just in terms of getting people back to church. He reveals a different mindset.

Pope Francis writes of "those members of the faithful who preserve a deep and sincere faith, but may express it in different ways, and seldom take part in worship". He has sparked a debate about the way the church treats those who are divorced and remarried, and whether they should continue to be excluded from Holy Communion, as the rules say they must be.

He says that "the Eucharist, although it is the fullness of the sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak".

Francis is clearly concerned with how the church regards, and relates to, those of its members who do not obey the church's moral teaching in every detail – whether they be married, single, divorced, co-habiting, celibate, straight, gay, and so on. He is well aware that this would cover the great majority of the world's catholics.

In an informal discussion with a group of journalists early in his pontificate, he was asked about homosexuality.  In a delightfully un-papal response, he said, admittedly off the cuff, "Who am I to judge?"

He insists that the church must show compassion and mercy to all. That is how it evangelises them.  The evangelising style he wants to see implemented is about inclusion, not exclusion.

In his letter Francis has no words of condemnation for those whose private lives do not conform to the catholic ideal. He is not nearly so tolerant towards those who exploit the poor, and keep them in a state of poverty.  He writes: "The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits.  In this free market system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule".

Such statements have won Pope Francis no friends among free-market economists.  He has even been denounced by some as a crypto-Marxist.  It is true that the poor need the wealth creation that market economies can supply, but it is also true that the so-called ‘trickle-down effect' benefits the rich more than the poor. Francis insists that global businesses must serve the common good, as well as make profits.

What is most significant in the Pope's remarks about social and economic matters is his conviction that there is no distinction between working for social justice and evangelisation.  They are like two sides of the same coin.

He clearly has a passion for the poor.  He says: "I want a church which is poor, and for the poor.  They have much to teach us.  In their difficulties they know the suffering Christ.  We need to let ourselves be evangelised by them."  For Francis, an  authentic faith must give priority to the needs of the poor.

His vision has huge implications for the way we live our faith, and for every level of church administration from local parishes to the Vatican itself.
Francis' model of the church, compared to that of the previous two popes, appears to be more open and participative, more fluid and less centralised, more willing to take risks, less clerical, and less worried about doctrinal conformity.

In changing the church's culture, he has set himself a huge task because it will mean confronting the interests of people in power who are resistant to change.  The church can be compared to a large container ship, or one of those huge cruise ships.  It takes a long time to turn them around. Francis has admitted he needs help for his reform agenda, including the reform of the papacy itself. Already there are some rumblings of discontent among the more conservative of the catholic hierarchy and laity about the direction in which he is steering the church.

Even among Francis' strongest supporters, there is the feeling that, as the first year of his papacy draws to a close, the ideals which he has expressed must soon begin to be translated into actions.  Otherwise, the "honeymoon" period will come to an end.

For his part, Pope Francis would know that he has the support of the overwhelming majority of the world's catholics.  Our prayer is that he will be given  the time and the strength he needs to carry out his plans to change the culture, priorities and structures of the church.