Pope Francis during an audience (Catholic Press Photo)

Ten years as Pope, living the real intensely

Alejandro Bonet, an Argentinean Professor of the Social Doctrine of the Church, reflects on Francis' pontificate, on the anniversary of his election.
Alejandro Bonet

Francis is the 266th pope. His election was a truly historic event that has surpassed all possible measures of human reason. He shows us that the initiative, to guide history towards its full and total fulfilment, remains in God’s hands and not man’s, with his limitations. God surpasses all human imagination and re-proposes himself to us in a totally original event. The first American, Jesuit pope, the first to choose the name Francis. His humanity is a "sign of contradiction" for everyone, because of his way of thinking, his mentality, his temperament, and his historical and cultural origins. It is a pro-vocation to go beyond all our measures.

An original presence. What is most simple and accessible to anyone is first of all the language of his gestures. The place where he has chosen to live, the robe and shoes he wears, the means of transportation he uses to travel together with all the other bishops, his way of communicating in a language that is understandable to all. Everything speaks of an originality that stems from an authentic personality rooted in the way he lived in his native Argentina until the day he was elected to the papal throne. God willed this specific person for this historical moment. In the last ten years, the expression that best describes what has happened and is happening to us is "a punch in the stomach." It was Cardinal Angelo Scola who so sincerely and authentically expressed what has happened to all of us, the experience we have had. But it is a punch to the stomach that was given to us by Another through him. It shakes us and makes us aware that we have stopped living Christianity and proposes that we recover from the origins the encounter with the Advent of Christ's presence in History.

A novelty in continuity. The most surprising thing about his pontificate is that he has been a faithful executor of the Second Vatican Council, with total fidelity to the magisterium of St. John XXIII, St. Paul VI, Blessed John Paul I, St. John Paul II and his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI. After those holy pontiffs it seemed impossible for anything "new" to happen, yet the novelty came from where we least expected it. Francis focused everything on the "method," on how to live the faith today. On the "intelligence of faith" as "intelligence of reality." This is why he began his pontificate in a surprising way, which has no antecedent in the 265 popes who preceded him. He made his own Lumen fidei, written almost in its entirety by Benedict XVI, and published as his first encyclical on June 29, 2013. Within that document is the "method" for living the faith, which is encountered through an event, the event of an encounter, and understood by listening, seeing, touching, that is, following. It is an "attraction" that changes our lives. His entire pontificate has been a faithful following of this method learned in the communal experience of the Aparecida meeting, and brilliantly developed by Benedict XVI, which God has wanted to preserve for these ten years, in order to attest to Pope Francis' continuity with the whole tradition of the Church embodied in him. The relationship between the two seems to me a sign of the times. An accompaniment, a permanent encounter, a mutual recognition. In particular, Francis' valorization of all the richness left to us by Benedict in the introduction to his book The True Europe, which came out in 2021, is a sign that shows how Francis embraces and gives continuity to all that he received from Benedict, introducing his own novelty, embodied in his own person, to discover "the true America," "the true Africa," "the true Asia," "the true Oceania," the "true Middle East."

A surprising originality. Francis' originality stems from his unity with all of God's holy faithful people. He himself has said that his first document totally of his own making, Evangelii gaudium, is nothing but a plagiarism of the Aparecida document and St. Paul VI's encyclical Evangelii nuntiandi. That is to say, a total fidelity to the methodological patrimony bequeathed to us by St. Paul VI and embodied by the Latin American episcopate over 52 years, from June 29, 1955, the date of Pius XII's apostolic letter Ad Ecclesiam Christi, to the first meeting of the Latin American Bishops' Conference in Rio de Janeiro, passing through Medellín 1968, Puebla 1979, Santo Domingo 1992, until the approval, on June 29, 2007, of the Aparecida Document, whose drafting Bergoglio led. In other words, his originality is the fruit of communion with the entire Latin American episcopate and not of his personal genius. What I would like to emphasize here – and it is a fundamental criterion introduced by Fr. Luigi Giussani – is that "unity is the law of knowledge." This seems to me to be embodied by Pope Francis, and it is the origin of his proposal of synodality. It is the fruit of a 52-year synodal process in Latin America, and he adopts it as a "method" for the universal Church, not as something that concerns only the bishops, but the whole holy faithful people of God.

According to the latest Pontifical Yearbook (after 500 years), 48 per cent of the world’s Catholics live in America, 21.2 per cent in Europe after 2,000 years, 18.9 percent in Africa, 11.1 percent in Asia, and 0.8 percent in Oceania. This is an objective fact and, read in the light of the work carried out by the Holy Spirit, there is no doubt that it is pointing us to a new horizon for the whole universal Catholic Church. We were used to thinking about the reality of the globe from the center of Europe, while Pope Francis is introducing us to a new hermeneutic, where he is proposing a new key to reading reality, starting from an intelligence that springs from a broader gaze, which comes from looking at reality from the periphery. It is a much more inclusive view. Like when early Christianity was born, in the peripheries of the Roman Empire.

From the contemplation of reality, from docility to circumstances, from living the real intensely, there emerged in Bergoglio and matured in Francis his multifaceted thinking, with the four principles arising from an acute gaze at reality as a dynamic tension between wholeness and limit (time is superior to space, unity prevails over conflict), between idea and reality (reality is more important than the idea), and between the whole and the part (the whole is superior to the part). This reformulates all the dominant thought of Enlightenment origin, with its great exponents – Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and their political heirs – in the dominant ideologies of the 20th century – Marxism, Fascism, National Socialism, Liberalism –, and all the "isms" that have been created.

A man of incomplete thought who submits reason to experience. In the two most important encyclicals of his pontificate, not surprisingly both dedicated to the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, the Pope reveals to us his gnosiology, his way of understanding and using reason. Both Laudato si' and Fratelli Tutti arise from the submission of reason to experience and the attitude of a man who conceives of himself as an "incomplete thought." That is to say, unity with others completes my thinking, makes it broader, more inclusive. And it is striking to see that this is precisely what Pope Benedict XVI meant in Caritas in Veritate when he spoke about the method of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

Rejoice and exult – Gaudete et exultate –, the DNA of Francis. On March 19, 2018, the Solemnity of St. Joseph, the fifth anniversary of the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis revealed the essence of his spirituality. The beatitudes as the core of holiness, lived in an age dominated by Gnosticism and Pelagianism. A holiness born as the grace of belonging to God's holy faithful people. Therefore, this letter should be understood as a continuation and deepening of Lumen fidei.

The global educational pact as the hermeneutical key to his entire pontificate. Francis has shown us that the central problem of today's culture is educational in nature, which is why, after judging his experience as pope over nearly ten years, he proposes the most mature contents of his pontificate, such as Querida Amazonia, Fratelli Tutti and "The Economy of Francis," in the context of the call for a "global educational pact": the exhortation to embrace the whole of reality according to its complexity, that is, taking into account all the factors at play.

The pandemic and the war in Ukraine are circumstances in which to live the "unarmed Beauty." Francis presented himself as a "sign" of the presence of the Mystery of God in the midst of the storm of history, as a true rock on which to rest. In a totally empty St. Peter's Square, in the sole presence of the Crucifix of San Marcello and the icon of Maria Salus Populi Romani, he showed us the way forward, leaning on the only one who can tell us, "Do not fear! It is I and I am here with you!" And in the midst of the madness of war, he urges us to "judge" the root of evil, proposing to us a path of Fratelli Tutti as the most adequate response that the human heart desires.

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The fragility of the human embraced by the merciful Face of God. The human reality in which the fragility of the contemporary person is manifested is the family, and the world of youth. Therefore, in the Apostolic Exhortations Amoris laetitia and Christus vivit, he addressed these realities, starting from the Bull Misericordiae Vultus and the Apostolic Letter Misericordia et misera, to make us understand that there is no answer to fragility except in embracing the person of today as they present themselves to us, which he translates into the phrase "embrace life as it comes," without conditions, conceiving the Church as a field hospital.

A Father who corrects his children and encourages them to embrace the whole of reality. The courage shown by Pope Francis in correcting the ecclesial movements that arose around the Second Vatican Council shows the deep love he has for what the Holy Spirit has raised up to recreate the whole life of the Church. The correction was very concrete to avoid "a betrayal of the purpose for which the charism was inspired by the Holy Spirit"; that is, that they cease to be self-referential and have as their horizon the whole reality of the world and not only what interests their own movement.

In conclusion, we have lived ten years marked by the human emotion of a man who radicalized the thought of Benedict XVI and John Paul II, making us experience the human vibration that comes from Christ's Passion for man. After the post-war period in Europe, the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI's 9 trips to 5 continents, John Paul II's 104 trips to two-thirds of the globe, in which he visited 129 out of 195 countries, Benedict XVI's 25 trips that gave us the incarnate wisdom of his Jesus of Nazareth throughout his magisterium, with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and its compendium, which arose from the collaboration of Ratzinger and Wojtyła, and the masterpiece of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, as well as the 40 apostolic journeys to all the peripheries of the world that Francis has made in his ten years of pontificate, we cannot fail to see what is happening before our eyes, the Coming of a "new beginning," filled with hope in the work of Another.