Francis Calls the Church to Joy

Pope Francis meets with the media • © Mazur/ via Flickr

Francis of Rome & Francis of Assisi: A New Spring in the Church • By Leonardo Boff. Orbis. Pp. 168. $18

The Preaching of Pope Francis: Missionary Discipleship and the Ministry of the Word • By Gregory Heille. Liturgical Press. Pp. 96. $12.95

Pope Francis’ Revolution of Tenderness and Love: Theological and Pastoral Perspectives • By Walter Kasper. Paulist. Pp. 117. $16.95

Morning Homilies II: In the Chapel of St. Martha’s Guest House, September 2, 2013–January 31, 2014 • By Pope Francis. Orbis. Pp. 216. $18

Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus • By Pope Francis. Herder & Herder. Pp. 320. $29.95

Review by Eugene R. Schlesinger

Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has attracted no shortage of attention, much of it surprisingly affirming, given the suspicion with which many regard “organized religion” in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Francis is a Rorschach test: any evaluation of him says more about one’s own ideological proclivities than it does about the man. Several recent books, each of which attempt to account for the pope’s theological and pastoral vision, bear this phenomenon out.

The temptation to coopt the bishop of Rome for an ideological agenda is particularly evident in Leonardo Boff’s comparison of “Francis of Rome and Francis of Assisi.” The idea of comparing Pope Francis with his chosen namesake is a particularly good one. Boff, a former Franciscan, is a statesman of liberation theology; Pope Francis, who hails from Argentina, is steeped in the episcopal conferences from which liberation theology was born. One would expect Boff to be well positioned for this comparative task. Yet, while Boff does a serviceable job locating Francis within this theological milieu, and articulating the merits of Francis’s agenda — a love for those at the margins, an emphasis on charity, a Church recovery of the virtue of poverty, reform of corruption — the book is severely hampered by Boff’s inability to characterize the past accurately because of his ideological blinders.

Just a few examples will suffice. Boff greatly oversells the discontinuity between Francis and his predecessors in the Holy See. Indeed, he evinces a deep antipathy for John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Benedict comes under special fire for incompetence and high-handed clericalism. And yet the lauded reforms Francis seeks received their impetus from Benedict. Benedict wrote most of Francis’s first encyclical. Moreover, Francis has repeatedly stressed his continuity with previous pontiffs. Boff’s treatment of Benedict is almost schizophrenic. In a single paragraph he refers to Ratzinger as Hans Küng’s colleague at Tübingen, with whom he “fostered the renewal of the church” in an “enthusiastic way,” and notes that Küng “was severely penalized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” of which Ratzinger was the prefect (p. 23).

A dearth of historical accuracy is evident throughout. Boff is simply factually wrong when he writes that a theological minority “agreed to take on, under the emperor’s control, the moral leadership of the Roman Empire” (p. 30), and that the emperor ruled the church “at the beginning” (p. 14). Until Constantine’s conversion in 312, and especially the Edict of Milan in 317, such mindsets would have been unimaginable. Such glaring historical errors throw the rest of the project under suspicion, and fatally harm the case Boff tries to build for his version of Pope Francis.

The Dominican Gregory Heille does a far better job accounting for the phenomenon of Pope Francis, though he cannot escape a certain Whig sensibility, according to which the last 50 years of Catholic history have been building to a Franciscan culmination (e.g., pp. 16-28). His focus is on Francis’s preaching. He details the approach to homiletics in Francis’s daily preaching at the Guest House of St. Martha in Rome. Francis takes an informal, conversational style, grounded in the day’s readings, and geared toward responding to Jesus’ call to missionary discipleship. Francis’s preaching is a call for a response enacted in real-life praxis. And it is in this focus upon real life that Heille sees the source of Francis’s great appeal. He embodies the message that he proclaims. The joy of the gospel (the title of his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii gaudium) is evident in his life.

Preachers, whether aspiring or seasoned, would benefit from this book, particularly paired with Morning Homilies II, which fleshes out the picture of Francis’s homiletical style. Neither the homilies nor the book about them would serve as a how-to manual, but they present a compelling vision for how preaching can challenge and inspire. That said, the format of Morning Homilies II is unfortunate. The pope’s words are mediated to us through reports from the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, rather than transcripts. The result is an attenuation of the direct, personal style Heille praises. Nevertheless, one is still struck with a sense of God’s calling into a greater intimacy with Christ and a greater commitment to service.

Pope Francis’ Revolution of Tenderness and Love is by far the best of these books. Cardinal Walter Kasper, former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, approaches Pope Francis with characteristic depth and nuance, and seeks to avoid coopting Francis by either presenting him as a fundamental rupture with his predecessors, or as simply more of the same. The result is that Kasper is able to account for many of the same aspects of Francis and his papacy as Boff, but does so in a more convincing and responsible manner.

Kasper sets the pope within his historical and geographical context, and dispels the myth that Francis is a “theological lightweight” (p. 7). Instead, as a “Jesuit through and through,” Francis is a “kerygmatic” theologian (p. 10). The proclamation of the gospel is the center of his theological vision. Kasper paints Francis as a gospel radical, seeking to root everything in and refer everything to a saving encounter with God in Christ. This at once gives him a deep continuity with the preceding tradition and positions him to move the church into the future. Francis’s agenda is marked by the retrieval of mercy, of joy, and a renewal of the Second Vatican Council’s ecclesiology of the people of God. Further, Francis has a communion ecclesiology, particularly one that emphasizes the local church as the concrete expression of the universal Church. This plays itself out in a commitment to decentralization, synodality, and careful listening by the magisterium. Kasper further details Francis’s potential for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.

Perhaps the best way to get to know Francis is in his own words. An even better resource than Morning Homilies II is therefore Open Mind, Faithful Heart, which grew out of clergy retreats given by Francis when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. The meditations are structured on the traditional pathway of Ignatian exercises and stress the importance of encountering the living Jesus. They are warm, engaging, and brief, covering topics such as responding to Christ’s call, dwelling in the shadow of the cross, and contemplating the Son of God together with his Blessed Mother. These meditations deserve to be read prayerfully, and are well suited to devotional use. They are the ideal starting place for understanding who Pope Francis really is (alongside his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii gaudium). Kasper’s book is a good next step if a reader desires more context and commentary.

One clear refrain runs through all of these books. Pope Francis is calling the whole Church into a life of missionary discipleship. All baptized Christians should seek a deepened encounter with Christ and, transformed by the joy of that encounter, seek to spread it far and wide.

Eugene R. Schlesinger recently completed his doctoral dissertation at Marquette University on liturgy and mission in the life of the church.

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