December 22nd, 2013
10:24 AM ET

The Pope's secret strength: The freedom to be Francis

Opinion by the Rev. Thomas Rosica, special to CNN

(CNN) Christmas was a moveable feast for me this year - in fact it happened right smack in the middle of Lent, when the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church elected a man from Argentina to be the next Pope.

I have been asking myself a ton of questions over the past months.

What has happened in the church, and how can it be that a 77-year-old, retirement-bound archbishop from Buenos Aires has captivated the world?

How can we describe the sense of springtime that has come upon the church? How is it fathomable in our day and age that not only Christians and Catholics but millions of others are speaking about “Papa Francesco” as if he were their own?

Is this all the work of a PR company or clever media strategists hired by the Vatican to rebrand its image? Or is there something else at work? Let me tell you what I think is afoot.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio took the name Francis upon his election as Pope and told us he did so because of his love for Francis of Assisi. For the past nine months, many of us have been associating the Pope’s gestures and actions with the “Poverello” or “Little Poor One” of Assisi, perhaps the most beloved saint of the Catholic tradition.

We can easily envision Francis of Assisi in that idyllic, medieval Umbrian hilltop town and mythologize about what really happened back in his day. But too often Francis’ radical message is lost and we reduce him to a gentle, whimsical hippie who fed birds, smelled flowers and tamed wild wolves. We easily forget that in reality, Assisi’s favorite son was and is the model of a radical Christian.

One day as a young man, Francis heard the plea of Jesus from the crucifix in the dilapidated San Damiano chapel on Assisi’s outskirts. “Go and repair my Church,” he heard Jesus say. And he certainly did that in his lifetime and through the huge Franciscan family that he left behind to carry forward his dream and continue his work.

Many of us have spent the past months finding similarities between Francis of Assisi and Francis of Buenos Aires, who took up residence in a guest house in Vatican City rather than the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace.

We become easily fixated on lots of eye-catching, buzz-causing externals and great photo opportunities: A Pope who abandoned the red shoes - that were never an official part of the papal wardrobe! A Pope who dresses modestly, pays his own lodging bills, drives around Vatican City in a Ford Focus, calls many people on the phone, brings jam sandwiches to on-duty Swiss Guards at his door and invites street people to his birthday breakfast.

This Roman pontiff specializes in kissing babies and embracing the sick, disfigured broken bodies, and the abandoned of society. We sit back, smile and utter: “What simplicity!” “Wow!” Awesome!” “Finalmente!”

We say: “Here is a one world leader who speaks the truth to power, walks his talk, and names idolatry and greed for what they are. Here’s a bold and courageous shepherd who lifts up the poor and tells us that if they are not part of our lives, then we are a sad and even doomed lot. Just like Francis of Assisi did in his day!”

But that is not the whole story.

I have realized more and more over the past months that while I have always loved Francis of Assisi and all the romantic ideals he embraced and stood for, Francis of Buenos Aires doesn’t transport me back to medieval Assisi. He takes me back to Bethlehem, Galilee and Jerusalem.

Everything the Pope is doing now is not just an imitation of his patron saint who loved the poor, embraced lepers, charmed sultans, made peace and protected nature. It’s a reflection of the child of Bethlehem who would grow up to become the man of the cross in Jerusalem, the Risen One that no tomb could contain, the man we Christians call Savior and Lord. The one whose birth we celebrate on December 25.

More than anyone in my lifetime, Pope Francis has given me a powerful glimpse into the mind and heart of God.

He wants the church to be an instrument of reconciliation and welcome, a church capable of warming hearts, a church that is not bent over on herself but always seeking those on the periphery and those who are lost, a church capable of leading people home.

Francis knows only too well that at times we lose people because they don't understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity.

On the late afternoon of March 13, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio received the call to go, rebuild, repair, renew and heal the church.

What we have witnessed over the past nine months is simply a disciple of Jesus, and a faithful disciple of Ignatius of Loyola (the founder of the Jesuits) and of Francis of Assisi, repairing, renewing, restoring, reconciling and healing the Church.

There are those who delight in describing the new Pope as a bold, brazen revolutionary sent to rock the boat. Others think he has come to cause a massive shipwreck.

But the only revolution that Pope Francis has inaugurated is a revolution of tenderness, the very words he used in his recent major letter on "The Joy of the Gospel."

“True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.”

It is this revolution that is at the heart of Pope Francis’ ministry.

Last week during a banquet in Chicago, Cardinal Francis George revealed why the cardinals gathered in conclave last March elected Bergoglio pope. George said: “Because the cardinal from Argentina was completely free. He possessed an interior freedom that was so evident.”

Is it not this unflinching freedom that allows Pope Francis to do what he does because he is unafraid and totally free to be himself at the same time of being such faithful son of the Church?

In our war-torn world, where selfishness, sadness, meanness, vengeance and harshness seem to have the upper hand at times, we need the message of Christmas: goodness, joy, kindness, mercy and the tenderness of our God.

These are also the qualities of the current revolutionary Bishop of Rome. No wonder why he has taken the world by storm, and why so many people are paying attention to him. We need the Francis revolution of tenderness and mercy now more than ever before.

The Rev. Thomas Rosica, CSB, is the CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network. He also assists the Holy See Press Office with English language media relations. The views expressed in this column belong to Rosica. 

- CNN Belief Blog

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

soundoff (383 Responses)
  1. Rob

    Going to beca better catholic.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
  2. joe

    It's amazing how the slightest mention of religion in any article online brings out the crazies in droves to make surreal pronouncements.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      How does your claim of "slightest mention" mesh with the reality that this article (and we) are on an entire blog devoted to belief/religion. Do you know how many thousands of articles are on this blog purely dedicated to religion and belief?

      December 22, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  3. ForTimesLikeThese

    Pope Francis is nothing but a glorified Buddhist. People are falling for it though so whatever works to keep the lie intact.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • Bayou Disqus

      A glorified Buddhist? I'm not sure what you mean; as far as I can tell, church doctrine remains the same, but the emphasis is better placed.

      December 22, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  4. JM

    Amen, amen and amen. The pope exemplifies why the gospel is GOOD news.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • Realist

      yes,, good news for those who destroy small children's lives. Agreed

      December 22, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
  5. bob

    He reminds me of princess diana this pope –After they are done she went back to being a princess and he goes back to his mansion

    December 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • Realist

      well said. I bet Diana wouldn't deny abused children though. This man is a terrorist to children abused

      December 22, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
      • bob

        well i wasn't referring to that –My point is both of them do photo p.r for 30 minutes and move along to their luxury lifestyle.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • Carob

      Did you not read the article? He doesn't live in the palace. And,even if he did, it's not like he's paying for it with church money. It's been paid for in the past.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  6. VedX

    Another secret strength: Speaking the truth. He has stayed true to his word, and in the world of conniving politicians who connive their way to the top, we are startled, even disbelieving, that truth can come from someone in power.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • Realist

      while denying children with lost lives due to the cover ups. He's a con man. Shhhh,, don't gossip <– keep the secret

      December 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  7. George

    So sad that today's "Christians" just are unable to be more like this guy. Today's "Christians" are too interested condemning everyone.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • VedX

      Not just today, but throughout history. Not to say that any other religions are better. It's just human nature to be corrupt.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • Realist

      far better people than this guy. The other people do it quietly without the 'Look at meeee!. I'm humble'

      And when done, they don't go back to a billion dollar castle.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
      • joe

        You are apparently unaware that the Pope refuses to live in the Papal Palace. He is still living in the hotel room he stayed in during the conclave. Did you even read this article?

        December 22, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  8. sparky

    I love the fact that he practices what he preaches, and by doing so he drives a lot of people insane - people who used to claim to speak for the Pope and the Church, but who are now woefully out of step with him.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
  9. Bayou Disqus

    Pope Francis has definitely breathed new life into The Church since his election and the rest of the media driven world has noticed. His words and open style of leadership are refreshing and comforting because they're exactly what we all needed in this tumultuous time. We needed someone competent to say "it'll all be ok, that we are loved" and then act on those words; it's incredibly touching, says a lot about the world we live in, and how much better it could be.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
    • Rojai

      This site bans all comments against the Pope: ! This is discrimination !

      December 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
      • joe

        then how do you explain all the negative comments that have been posted by mean spirited twits in the last hour?

        December 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  10. PJ

    Pope Francis is the most compassionate person in my lifetime and I wish New York's Dolan would stop trying to subtly undermine him. It is obvious Dolan would have prefered Benedict.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • Realist

      they are both con men..

      December 22, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
  11. Roger

    I wonder what the Pope thinks about Obama providing access to healthcare for the 37 million people who didn't have it.


    December 22, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • SciGuy

      If Obama had done that, it would have been gracious and compassionate. Since he took money from me without my consent, it makes him a thief, and should be therefore condemned by any man who claims to serve the God of the Bible.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
  12. Universe

    Quran says (Islamic Scripture)

    “The example of Jesus, as far as GOD is concerned, is the same as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him, "Be," and he was.” Quran [3:59]

    “It does not befit God that He begets a son, be He glorified. To have anything done, He simply says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.” [19:35]

    “No soul can carry the sins of another soul. If a soul that is loaded with sins implores another to bear part of its load, no other soul can carry any part of it, even if they were related. ... [35:18]

    “They even attribute to Him sons and daughters, without any knowledge. Be He glorified. He is the Most High, far above their claims.” Quran [6:100]

    “Recall that your Lord said to the angels, "I am placing a representative on Earth." They said, "Will You place therein one who will spread evil therein and shed blood, while we sing Your praises, glorify You, and uphold Your absolute authority?" He said, "I know what you do not know." [2:30]

    “They say , "We live only this life; we will not be resurrected. If you could only see them when they stand before their Lord! He would say, "Is this not the truth?" They would say, "Yes, by our Lord." He would say, "You have incurred the retribution by your disbelief." [6:30]

    “We have honored the children of Adam, and provided them with rides on land and in the sea. We provided for them good provisions, and we gave them greater advantages than many of our creatures.” Quran [17:70]

    “O children of Adam, when messengers come to you from among you, and recite My revelations to you, those who take heed and lead a righteous life, will have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve.” Quran [7:35]

    “O children of Adam, do not let the devil dupe you as he did when he caused the eviction of your parents from Paradise, and the removal of their garments to expose their bodies. He and his tribe see you, while you do not see them. We appoint the devils as companions of those who do not believe.” Quran [7:27]

    “Losers indeed are those who disbelieve in meeting God, until the Hour comes to them suddenly, then say, "We deeply regret wasting our lives in this world." They will carry loads of their sins on their backs; what a miserable load! [6:31]

    Thanks for taking time to read my post. Please take a moment to visit whyIslam org website.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • Jesus' Beloved

      I read most of this, I don't know if you addressed it... how does one obtain salvation?

      December 22, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
      • Sally Wells

        Religion, Bible, Koran are all man made fiction. 100%.
        As 4 salvation? Work harder or win the lottery. And spend it now, bcos U can't take it with you....cos there ain't any place but this. ENJOY THE DAY.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
        • SciGuy

          I've never met an atheist who didn't have at least two gods–Science and State, the former omniscient, the latter omnipotent.

          December 22, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
      • sam stone

        why do you feel man needs salvation? because a book told you so?

        December 23, 2013 at 6:15 am |
    • Cephas Pharr

      Myth. Would politely suggest you read a bit of unbiased history, particularly in the areas of the Arian and Nestorian controversies (where they would hold a different view of who Jesus of Nazareth really was). That was the "flavor" of Christology around the area of Medina/Mecca, and the view assimilated into the early beliefs there. The process of "absorption" of local culture and belief within theology (and elsewhere) is called "syncretism". Peace.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
    • PJ

      This reads like a lot of dribble.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
      • Cephas Pharr

        PJ, Actually the correct word is "drivel'... The first indication of a weak (or non-existent) objective reply (or capacity) is to make an attack against the person themselves - vv. offering insults. (It's also a bit narcissistic, your need to insult, because something "sounds" wrong to you). Just because you don't understand something doesn't make it less true (as with Gravity) does it? Merry Christmas.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • The Woodhaven Squire


      December 22, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
  13. Martin

    The picture is now clear and Malachy's prophesy is now easy to understand : for better or for worse, this pope is going to be the last one. He will die as the result of a bold gesture when he will intervene to stop a major conflict.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • swohio

      Your comment implies Saint Peter died as a result of intervening to stop a conflict. Which conflict would that have been?

      December 22, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
  14. cfd

    The irony of it all, CNN doesn't quite know what to do. Praising someone they despise.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:44 am |
  15. What a Pope!

    I have seen where the wolf has slept by the silver stream
    I can tell by the mark he left, you were in his dream
    Ah child of countless trees
    Ah child of boundless seas
    What you are, what you're meant to be

    -John Barlow

    December 22, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • Bill

      a great Pope indeed. The youth are again approaching the Church, because he makes sense to them, simply because he practices what he (and the Church) preach. A Pope for the books.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:51 am |
      • SciGuy

        A wolf in sheep's clothing. The RC "church" is antichrist.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
  16. Jesus' Beloved

    "We need the Francis revolution of tenderness and mercy now more than ever before."

    By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, when you have love for one another. Mankind is here on this earth to learn selflessness. When he begins to love all people as much as he loves himself, he will shun the lust of his eyes, the lust of his flesh and the pride of life.
    Mr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio is simply doing what Christ Jesus commanded all of us to do.
    My hope is that you, Mr. Thomas Roscia and the people you are ministering to will do the same- not just because Mr. Bergoglio chose to be obedient to the command of our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus, but because you choose to be obedient as well.
    So now you know, and I look forward to hearing of you and your congregants healing the sick, cleansing, the leper, feeding the hungry, raising the dead.

    Have a Blessed Day.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:24 am |
  17. Believer

    The Prophesy of an anti Pope fits Francisco, he has kissed the Koran in front of Muslim clerics, he has being present in religious ceremonies where Rabbis have pronounced that Jews wait the arrival of the "Real Messiah" implying Jesus is not.
    He has been quite about priests beheaded my muslim rebels in Syria, homes and Church property that has being demolished in Israel to make room for Jewish settlers.
    He is not acting as the Head of the Roman Catholic Church, and defending it. He is more interested on being popular.
    He is the Anti Pope.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • Someone

      It really sucks that Francisco is the Pope and you're not.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • lngtrmthnkr

      And you Mr. Believer are a man of little understanding and posess little truth. I hope that your eyes will be opened and someday soon you will see clearly what is real and what is false.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
    • sparky

      Whereas a good Pope would have mowed them all down with an AK-47?

      December 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  18. RTS ?

    Maybe or maybe not ^^^ ?

    #12 Religious Trauma Syndrome: How Some Organized Religion Leads to Mental Health Problems

    Posted: Dec 18, 2013


    December 22, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • Jesus' Beloved

      The Holy Spirit doesn't bind. So if some one is in a church or religious organization where they feel bound or mentally oppressed they should get out.

      All that Jesus taught was out of love. Anything that's not of love is not of God. They should get out now.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:47 am |
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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.