July 29th, 2013
06:22 PM ET

How Pope Francis is revolutionizing the church

Opinion by the Rev. James Martin, special to CNN

(CNN) - At times last week, I was dumbstruck and even in tears as I followed the coverage of Pope Francis' visit to Brazil for World Youth Day.

Few things have filled me with more hope about my church than the pope's past few days. For what Francis did in Rio de Janeiro, and continues to do, represents some very positive change.

Monday’s surprising interview aboard his plane back to Rome, during which, in response to a question about gays and gay priests, he said, in part, “Who am I to judge?” likewise shows an openness that borders on revolutionary.

At the same time, Francis called for greater mercy for divorced and remarried Catholics, and asked for a "deeper theology" of women in the church.

This does not mean that I’m downplaying or denigrating Popes John Paul II or Benedict XVI. By no means.

READ MORE: Pope Francis on gays: `Who am I to judge?'

For one thing, there wouldn’t be a World Youth Day (not to mention a free Western Europe) without the efforts of John Paul.

For another, even setting aside his many other contributions, were it not for the humility of Benedict, whose resignation made way for a successor, there would not be a new pope.

Praise of Francis does not imply critique of his predecessors. Each pope brings his own gifts to the office.

But make no mistake: Francis is doing is something new. And he has the potential to change the church, and in the process the world.

Let’s look at five “moments” of his time in Rio—and on his flight back to Rome.

The poor

Other popes have visited the poor. In fact, John Paul II visited a favela in Rio in 1980. Other popes have spoken about the poor and economic injustice.

The Catholic Church’s social justice tradition reaches back to the 19th century Pope Leo XIII, and, frankly, all the way back to Jesus.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pope embrace the poor—literally and figuratively—the way Pope Francis did during his visit to the Varginha favela. Perhaps he felt at home among the Latin America poor. During his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he spent a great deal of time in the slums.

READ MORE: 'Slum pope' visits Brazil's poor

But there was more. His moving address in the favela was, outside the Gospels, the most succinct summary of social justice I’ve ever heard.

Again, all popes since Leo XIII have spoken on the theme, but few with such passion.

It was a ringing declaration of the church’s absolute commitment to the poor: “To all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity! No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world!"

The joy

Francis smiled nearly all the time during his stay in Rio. Does that sound insignificant? It is not.

Joy is one of the surest signs of God’s presence, and it draws others to God. It is a powerful, but often overlooked, tool for evangelization.

Everyone seems to feel comfortable with Pope Francis, which may explain the hugs.

That’s one gentle distinction I might make between Francis and his predecessors. I greatly admired both John Paul II and Benedict, but I don’t think I would have felt so comfortable hugging them.

That’s not been the reaction of most people toward the Jesuit pope, who seems to evoke physical affection from everyone from children to the elderly. Even from bishops, priests and nuns.

A Jesuit friend met Pope Francis a few weeks ago in Rome, and told me that he instinctively hugged the Supreme Pontiff. “I couldn’t help myself!”

In the Gospels, Jesus’ disciples “rebuked” people for bringing their children to him for an embrace. But Jesus rebukes them for being cold-hearted.

In a church where clerics are sometimes seen as coldly aloof, joy is a tonic—and a recipe for change.

The critique

The bluntness of Francis’ comments about the state of the priesthood, specifically about "clericalism," shocked me.

Loosely defined, clericalism is the attitude that priests are better than everyone else. And this is not an obscure intra-church issue.

Clericalism is one of the main reasons for the sexual abuse crisis: for if priests consider themselves better than everyone, then they will also believe they are inherently more trustworthy.

Why, went the tragic thinking, should a bishop listen to victims if “Father” tells me nothing happened? Francis labeled clericalism a “sinful complicity.”

In combating clericalism, rightfully in my mind, Francis offers the possibility of reorienting the church.

The mess

Francis clearly doesn’t mind stirring things up.

In an unscripted remark in Rio, delivered in his native Spanish, he said, “What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses!"

In case anyone missed the point, he said, "I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. Because these need to get out!"

The official Vatican translation of the Spanish word he used, "lio," was “noise.” Spanish-speakers, however, told me that “mess” or “trouble making” may be closer to the mark.

The Catholic Church needs some shaking up, everywhere. Many of us Catholics have gotten too used to the idea that people should simply come to us because we have all the answers.

All of us need shaking up. Jesus understood this. Much of his ministry was about shaking things up–comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

The pope did some comforting even on the plane ride back to Rome as well.

When asked in a free-wheeling news conference (in the middle of some turbulence) about the presence of gay priests in the church, he responded, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

And more: “They shouldn’t be marginalized. ...They’re our brothers.”

This is an act of mercy and compassion toward not only gay priests but gays in general, probably the first positive mention from a pope on the topic.

The pope likewise called for greater mercy and compassion for divorced and remarried Catholics, who have long felt marginalized in the church, and asked for a "deeper theology" of women in the church.

These comments betoken a remarkable shift in tone in the church. More importantly, they are a revelation of Jesus’ mercy to those on the margins.

Francis is not afraid to make a “mess,” especially if the “mess” comes from mercy.

The fun

There’s a word you don’t see in many papal encyclicals: fun.

But Jesus had fun. (What is traditionally considered his first miracle was at a wedding party, after all.)

And the Pope looked like he was having a blast at World Youth Day. It didn’t bother him when his car took a wrong turn onto a busy Rio street. You could see him thinking: Who cares? This is fun! I get to kiss another baby!

Francis flummoxed some of his Vatican advisers by adding several major events to his calendar, tuckering them out.

Midway through the week, the papal spokesperson the Rev. Federico Lombardi, SJ, said “I'm happy we're halfway through, because if it were any longer I'd be destroyed.”

Make no mistake: words and gestures mean something. In the Christian worldview, Jesus’ prophetic preaching and his miracles—healing the sick, raising the dead, stilling storms—did not just point to something coming, they inaugurated a new era.

Of course the Pope is not Jesus—he’d be the first to tell you that, probably with a huge laugh!

But with Francis, God is doing, to quote the Prophet Isaiah, “something new.”

James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, editor at large at America, and author of "The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything" and "Between Heaven and Mirth."  The views expressed in this column belong to Martin. 

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Church • Opinion • Pope Francis

soundoff (85 Responses)

    There never was a 'Jesus"...get real

    July 30, 2013 at 6:44 am |
  2. Reality

    Dear Francis,

    So you want a revolution? Here is how (of course, you will be out of a job).

    Saving Christians from the Infamous Resurrection Con/

    From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15: 14, Paul reasoned, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

    Even now Catholic/Christian professors (e.g.Notre Dame, Catholic U, Georgetown) of theology are questioning the bodily resurrection of the simple, preacher man aka Jesus.

    To wit;

    From a major Catholic university's theology professor’s grad school white-board notes:

    "Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly – earth bound distractions.
    Jesus and Mary's bodies are therefore not in Heaven.

    Most believe that it to mean that the personal spiritual self that survives death is in continuity with the self we were while living on earth as an embodied person.

    Again, the physical Resurrection (meaning a resuscitated corpse returning to life), Ascension (of Jesus' crucified corpse), and Assumption (Mary's corpse) into heaven did not take place.

    The Ascension symbolizes the end of Jesus' earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church.

    Only Luke records it. (Luke mentions it in his gospel and Acts, i.e. a single attestation and therefore historically untenable). The Ascension ties Jesus' mission to Pentecost and missionary activity of Jesus' followers.

    The Assumption has multiple layers of symbolism, some are related to Mary's special role as "Christ bearer" (theotokos). It does not seem fitting that Mary, the body of Jesus' Virgin-Mother (another biblically based symbol found in Luke 1) would be derived by worms upon her death. Mary's assumption also shows God's positive regard, not only for Christ's male body, but also for female bodies." "

    "In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world and we exist. In this he is applying the philosophical categories used by the Church in her theology and saying what St. Thomas Aquinas said long before him."

    The Vatican quickly embellished this story with a lot CYAP.

    With respect to rising from the dead, we also have this account:

    An added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue,


    "Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God's hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus' failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing."

    p.168. by Ted Peters:

    Even so, asking historical questions is our responsibility. Did Jesus really rise from the tomb? Is it necessary to have been raised from the tomb and to appear to his disciples in order to explain the rise of early church and the transcription of the bible? Crossan answers no, Wright answers, yes. "

    So where are the bones"? As per Professor Crossan's analyses in his many books, the body of Jesus would have ended up in the mass graves of the crucified, eaten by wild dogs, covered with lime in a shallow grave, or under a pile of stones.

    July 30, 2013 at 6:04 am |
    • James

      Big deal. These kinds of heresies go back to the earliest Christian times. Christianity asserts not the rejection of our material condition but its eternal restoration. Read up on gnostics.

      July 30, 2013 at 6:13 am |
      • Reality

        Some added references:

        o 1. Historical Jesus Theories, earlychristianwritings.com/theories.htm – the names of many of the contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the ti-tles of their over 100 books on the subject.

        2. Early Christian Writings, earlychristianwritings.com/
        – a list of early Christian doc-uments to include the year of publication–

        30-60 CE Passion Narrative
        40-80 Lost Sayings Gospel Q
        50-60 1 Thessalonians
        50-60 Philippians
        50-60 Galatians
        50-60 1 Corinthians
        50-60 2 Corinthians
        50-60 Romans
        50-60 Philemon
        50-80 Colossians
        50-90 Signs Gospel
        50-95 Book of Hebrews
        50-120 Didache
        50-140 Gospel of Thomas
        50-140 Oxyrhynchus 1224 Gospel
        50-200 Sophia of Jesus Christ
        65-80 Gospel of Mark
        70-100 Epistle of James
        70-120 Egerton Gospel
        70-160 Gospel of Peter
        70-160 Secret Mark
        70-200 Fayyum Fragment
        70-200 Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
        73-200 Mara Bar Serapion
        80-100 2 Thessalonians
        80-100 Ephesians
        80-100 Gospel of Matthew
        80-110 1 Peter
        80-120 Epistle of Barnabas
        80-130 Gospel of Luke
        80-130 Acts of the Apostles
        80-140 1 Clement
        80-150 Gospel of the Egyptians
        80-150 Gospel of the Hebrews
        80-250 Christian Sibyllines
        90-95 Apocalypse of John
        90-120 Gospel of John
        90-120 1 John
        90-120 2 John
        90-120 3 John
        90-120 Epistle of Jude
        93 Flavius Josephus
        100-150 1 Timothy
        100-150 2 Timothy
        100-150 T-itus
        100-150 Apocalypse of Peter
        100-150 Secret Book of James
        100-150 Preaching of Peter
        100-160 Gospel of the Ebionites
        100-160 Gospel of the Nazoreans
        100-160 Shepherd of Hermas
        100-160 2 Peter

        3. Historical Jesus Studies, faithfutures.org/HJstudies.html,
        – "an extensive and constantly expanding literature on historical research into the person and cultural context of Jesus of Nazareth"
        4. Jesus Database, faithfutures.org/JDB/intro.html–"The JESUS DATABASE is an online annotated inventory of the traditions concerning the life and teachings of Jesus that have survived from the first three centuries of the Common Era. It includes both canonical and extra-canonical materials, and is not limited to the traditions found within the Christian New Testament."
        5. Josephus on Jesus mtio.com/articles/bissar24.htm
        6. The Jesus Seminar, mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/seminar.html#Criteria
        7. Writing the New Testament- mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/testament.html
        8. Health and Healing in the Land of Israel By Joe Zias
        9. Economics in First Century Palestine, K.C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Fortress Press, 1998.
        10.The Gnostic Jesus
        (Part One in a Two-Part Series on Ancient and Modern Gnosticism)
        by Douglas Groothuis: equip.or-g/free/DG040-1.htm

        July 30, 2013 at 10:56 am |

      This so called resurrection thing is laughable.

      July 30, 2013 at 6:48 am |
      • Mark

        Let me give you heads up. San Francisco is about to get flattened. This is by divine revelation of the Holy Spirit. Try to recognize the judgement that is at hand when it happens and perhaps rethink your position on Christianity. Jesus said I've come to give sight to the blind. He wasn't talking about physical blindness, he was talking about the blindness that you're suffering from.

        July 30, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
        • Reality

          John 9:

          Then Jesus said, “I have come into this world to judge: Blind people will be given sight, and those who can see will become blind.”

          But did Jesus utter this passage? As per many contemporary NT scholars, he did not. See for example Professor Gerd Ludemann's review and conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 492-500 and


          July 30, 2013 at 11:29 pm |
  3. Awabnavi

    "Who am I to judge"? Why are you a POPE if you will not judge between good and evil. Not to judge EVIL as EVIL is going against the Spirit of Religion. It is going against the acts of the Prophets of the past. No Prophet in the face of evil every said "who am I to judge", or did they?

    July 30, 2013 at 5:58 am |
  4. OB Red

    It's the real essence of the 2nd Vatican Council.,the church is the people, serve them. The theology should be liberating, the society need more caring from our church leaders..I admire Pope Francis.

    July 30, 2013 at 4:27 am |
  5. Viivi

    I think also as an Lutheran that joy and mercy is missing from our church and there is too much condemning. I really dig the new pope.

    July 30, 2013 at 3:47 am |
  6. too little, too late

    The pope and his church belong a thousand years in the past.

    The empty, repeti tious rituals, gaudy robes, stupid relics, opulent churches are absurd in the modern world.

    July 30, 2013 at 2:17 am |
    • fjvegac

      Well, not everyone thinks like you. Some people believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God made man and that He founded a Church which subsists in the Roman Catholic Church. These people believe that they can find and worship God in this Church, and the worship involves a liturgy (doesn't Buckingham palace have a ritual for the change of guards and few people find it irrelevant, etc?). What you find so empty, practicing Catholics find it full of meaning.

      July 30, 2013 at 4:18 am |
      • too little, too late

        Yeah, and it all real right? Learn about the RCC's history.

        Humanity has enough reasons to kill each other – add religion to the mix and you can get somebody who otherwise wouldn't care about you one way or another, wanting to kill you because their God says they have too.

        I tend to judge actions more than words, Christianity talks about love, but deals in threats and isn't too far removed from a phenomenally bloody past. We would be doing quite a bit better without religion – less reasons to fight, far less racism, less population etc.

        July 30, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  7. Jimi B.

    This Pope obviously hired one hell of a P.R. group. No joke.

    July 30, 2013 at 12:22 am |
  8. Sunfire

    The wise Pope simply says that he is not the judge but the Lord is. The last time the Lord judge was on Sodom and it pals Gomorrah.

    July 30, 2013 at 12:08 am |
    • jen


      July 30, 2013 at 3:36 am |
  9. lajide2003

    Reblogged this on Lajide2003's Blog.

    July 29, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
  10. Gary

    My only comment is that they should ban all comment threads having to do with religion. Within 3 comments, some idiot is off on some tangent of prejudice, rage or hatred, and the rest of the comments quickly and equally descend, either out of defense or idiocy, and no reasonable discourse is possible. The only discussion thread that should be allowed is sports. At least people back up their comments with verifiable statistics, so even if the discussion descends into impolite lunacy, there are some stats to back it up...

    July 29, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
    • .



      July 29, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
  11. lionlylamb


    July 29, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
    • Austin

      simon and garfunkle?

      July 29, 2013 at 9:15 pm |
    • Philip Edwards

      He sort of looks like a corporate gangster to me.

      July 29, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
    • lionlylamb


      July 29, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
      • lionlylamb


        July 29, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
  12. Martin

    I was in Rio with my family for a vacation and the Pope's visit was amazing.So many happy and wonderful people enjoying his visit and no one drunk or violent. Whether you believe in God or not, people treating one another with some much kindness was refreshing. Viewing 3.5 million people on the beach and everyone kind to one another was unreal. Furthermore, if you listen to the Pope's comments throughout his visit you get the feeling that he is just a down to earth and cool person.

    July 29, 2013 at 8:43 pm |
    • Gina

      I dunno about "cool". That big silk dress he wears is so 1800's. And those fat red ballerina slippers at the ends of those vericose veined fatty pegs. And then there's that hat...tee hee hee...

      July 29, 2013 at 9:16 pm |
      • Somto

        Gina, i pity u. How do u find joy in doing things thats matters most in life

        July 30, 2013 at 3:39 am |
      • Tony Jesudason

        Why so haughty Gina. God still loves you. Just read the passages in the Holy bible of the lady called Mary Magdalene. Praying for your discernment. Love You & God Bless!
        Tony j

        July 30, 2013 at 4:04 am |
  13. Psych nurse

    It's window dressing. Nothing substantial has changed. His attack dog is still stalking the nuns.
    So he goes to a Southern Catholic country and says stuff the rest of the world has been saying for decades, and its all like "whoopie". How stupid. If he went to an educated first world country, people would be sauing "duh".
    Who cares.

    July 29, 2013 at 8:35 pm |
    • peej

      you seem like the kind of critic who will never be satisfied, so why even bother voicing your rather subjective opinion?

      July 29, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
      • Psych nurse

        Because Jesus was a radical. If they actually were his church, they would BE radicals. They're wimps.

        July 29, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
      • VoiceOver

        What do you mean? You consider yours objective? Pot-kettle, go figure

        July 30, 2013 at 2:55 am |
    • GXM

      Based on your comment, I must only assume that you are not well educated, what a shame. I wouldn't like to have your "education". You need to study more if you like to participate in world comments.

      July 29, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
    • Somto

      What a shame. i will just simply say that u are not an objective person and also u are insensitive to what is happening around u

      July 30, 2013 at 3:43 am |
    • Tony Jesudason

      Common Phsyche Nurse. Why are so judgemental Look inside yourself. How you measure others is the way you are going to be measued. So rise .Tony J

      July 30, 2013 at 4:07 am |
  14. Abril

    This is the Pope who has made the poor the first priority of the Church, who has refused to wear not only gold and jewels but also animal fur, the Pope who has frankly and clearly articulated that believers should not judge and condemn anyone, even atheists. It is so refreshing to see him defending a new group of people, one so marginalized traditionally by religion in general. It is a proud day for Catholics.

    July 29, 2013 at 8:34 pm |
    • Psych nurse

      So they catch up to where the world was 20 years ago, and you're all patting yourselves on the back. Don't strain yourself.

      July 29, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
    • Ryan

      "... even atheists."

      As somebody who is not and never has been religious, I find this mode of thought fairly illogical – I don't know why I should be condemned, after all, nor can I appreciate why the same should happen to so many of my friends. I guess I'm happy that Francis is trying to make progress, but you'll have to excuse me for not being exuberant. That atheists and gays and women aren't all bad or inherently evil shouldn't be newsworthy or a shocking thing to say – it should be normal and regarded as common sense in any diverse society. If this is a papal first that's taken over a thousand years to achieve, what's being shown is only how far the Catholic church is from modernization.

      July 30, 2013 at 1:30 am |
    • VoiceOver

      Wow, a pope who wants to make the poor his first priority. This from the man fronting the richest organisation in the world with more wealth in assets and real estate than the 5 biggest corporations in the US combined? Where is the announcement he will liquidate all that wealth which could get rid of world wide poverty many times over?

      July 30, 2013 at 1:50 am |
  15. jay noble

    Pope Francis I comments on gays is a shift in tone and a welcome one. I will, however, continue to be wary of such statements and the good will motivating them until and unless Pope Francis backs off throwing the "Nuns ON the Bus" under the bus.

    July 29, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
  16. Philip Edwards

    I think I know what the ring is for now.

    July 29, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • Rick Brawn

      Jusr curious, now that you know, would you let the world know what it stands for?

      July 29, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
      • Philip Edwards

        Yeah, put 100 bux in a self addressed envelop. Email me for further details. They cut off my welfare.

        July 29, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
        • Rick Brawn

          Sorry to hear about your welfare being cut off. Good luck with selling your ring theory. You might find it worth more than 100 bucks on eBay.

          July 29, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
      • Philip Edwards

        I've tried sharing and somehow it just never works out for me. Not only that, it's taken me 35 years to figure things out ... and you're just curious.

        July 29, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
        • Philip Edwards

          Try me on facebook. I do share there.

          July 29, 2013 at 9:15 pm |
  17. EX catholic

    Usually both sins go hand in hand, hom-os and idolaters. Idolatry is not religion Idolatry is a sin

    July 29, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
    • Hank

      Idiot. Grow up, little boy.

      July 29, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
    • mary

      Are you gay, EX?

      July 29, 2013 at 8:33 pm |
    • Baal

      I will pray to the Aten for your ka.

      July 29, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
    • Darren

      there is no such thing as god its just a fairy tale

      July 30, 2013 at 12:40 am |
      • Tony Jesudason

        Hi Darren,
        Your mere existence in this world to voice your opinion is because God created you to His own image & Likeness. What you are doing is using your own free will which He gave you. Don't be hasty in your decisions. My prayers are for you Darren for discernment.
        Kind & Best regards!
        Tony J

        July 30, 2013 at 4:01 am |
  18. tony

    When he scraps the bible, due to honesty, then I'll be impressed.

    July 29, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
    • Benny Hill

      Yeah, I think he'll just edit it. We'll end up with a new "translation" version but the core myths will be the same, and they'll still be fiction.

      July 29, 2013 at 9:12 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.