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. carob

    Isn't interesting that people who have no faith are the one who comment on the faith forum? Sounds like they are missing something and that through insulting people of faith are really trying to justify their personal lack of faith. Pope Francis is simply trying to refocus everyone on the needs of the poor and being kind to each other. This isn't just a Catholic notion; it's a human one!

    December 22, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • Apostle

      Then let us be Human and drop all the fictional god nonsense 🙂

      December 22, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  2. Blessing

    Blessings to all. I am happy how the Pope Francis is the getting the attention that he is getting. He reminds me of Michael Jackson. Yes, MIchael Jackson. He also showed love and kindness to sick children and visited so many orphanages all around the world. He taught us to love mother nature and take care of it. He also talked about being like "JESUS". When we lost Michael, we thought the world would be lost, but thank God for Pope Francis; he has restored our faith in humanity.

    December 22, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
    • Martin Snapp

      Um, Pope Francis has never been accused of molesting little boys as far as I'm aware. Michael Jackson was a great entertainer, but he wrestled with some really awful demons.

      December 22, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
  3. Scot

    The Pope has no secret strengths. He's human just like everyone else on this earth.

    December 22, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
  4. Bribarian

    This new pope is bad news, how do I know? The media loves him

    December 22, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
  5. Chares

    If you think that American Catholics like the Marxist rhetoric and the courting of the gay lobby, you are sadly mistaken.

    December 22, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
  6. Reality # 2

    And once again moving properly into the 21st century especially for popes and priests still caught up in the mythical mumbo jumbo of Christianity of 1st century Palestine:

    The Apostles' Creed 2013 (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (References used are available upon request.)

    December 22, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  7. Blake

    He's another subversive decadent. Another indication of western civilization in its dying phase.

    December 22, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
  8. St.Peters

    Which Christ does this Pope stand for, the fat one or one of the two skinny ones?

    December 22, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  9. Jeb

    Who here ever thought that we'd see a Pope that actually follows the teachings of Christ?

    Strange days indeed.

    December 22, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • Lionly Lamb

      I'm thinking.... Still waiting... Not yet...

      December 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
    • Ken

      It's very nice to see, isn't it...

      December 22, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • allenwoll

      It is indeed remarkable - So much so that some even here have lost their minds over it ! !

      December 22, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
  10. Ken

    The Pope's secret strength is that he is living the teaching of Jesus Christ. If past Popes had been doing this, it wouldn't seem so different.

    December 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • igaftr

      Where in Jesus teachings does it tell him to maintain the child abuse cover-up?

      December 22, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
      • Puckles

        Right on, man.

        December 22, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
        • Ken


          December 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
      • Ken

        He's not maintaing the Child abuse cover up. Just in the past few weeks, he had the Church publish the names of priest child abusers.

        December 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
        • aldewacs2

          Oh I missed that.
          Link, please?

          December 22, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
  11. Rick

    "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?"

    The question then becomes, why haven't many other Catholic priests done so in the past? Sure, there are a few here and there, but exactly what was impinging on the freedoms of most Catholic priests that interfered with them showing tenderness? The answer is probably the Church itself.

    December 22, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
  12. mary

    I alway enjoy reading the postings because so many of you can do nothing but be critical of anything that is written. Yeesh! Frankly, i think this article is about the best that I've read concering Pope Francis. And I've tried to read everything because as a Catholic and one who attends Mass regularly, the past 30 years or so have been difficult. God Forbid, i happen to be a Democrat and so I've had many a nasty note on my car over the years from my so called community of good Catholics. So pardon me if I get a little excited about the fact the Pope Francis is trying to soften the dialogue and to get the church to focus on other issues. All the writer is saying, or so I think, is that Pope Francis has gone back to the beginning, with Christ our saviour, not just with St. Francis of Assisi. Sorry if you got your skirts all caught up in a tangle because he said the priests have lost the language of simplicity! Can't you just read an article and accept it on good faith, must you people always be so damn arguementative?! Merry Christmas and Happy new year to you all.

    December 22, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  13. The Flamingo Kid

    The Catholic church is OVER. This pope is just a ruse being used by the Catholics to bring in money – which they desperately need sine they are going bankrupt. Guess its time to sell some of that gold hoarded up in the Vatican.

    December 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  14. brian

    This article doesn't really say anything. It's just another feel good story about the pope to fill space between the advertizing.

    December 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • HELLO


      December 22, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
  15. JMac

    "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." Really? You are blaming us for not understanding what "You" are saying? I think you have missed what Pope Francis is saying Rev. Your type is exactly what is driving people away with your comments like this that we could not have understood you or the teachings of Christ. Under Pope Benedict greed was tolerated, pedifiles protected, hate taught from the pulpit etc. and this is what Francis is trying to correct. Answer me this Rev, how many pedifile priest did you stop from abusing children? How many people did you welcome into your rectory to provide shelter or a meal when they needed it? Or better yet how often did you turn your back on them and Christ?

    December 22, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  16. Factoidlover

    Calling the current Bishop of Rome revolutionary may be correct in view of his departure from the last few to hold the office. But consider the irony of the statement. All pontiffs should be chosen because they embody the church's ideals, but it appears so infrequently that when one appears, he's dubbed "revolutionary." I wonder if Jesus would not only eschew the Apostalic Palace, but also melt it down and distribute among the poor. Francis' common touch may have currency in the short term, but will he have the guts to put the scourge to decades of corruption and offenses? Time will tell if Francis is pastoral revolutionary or merely fragrant billboard.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:54 pm |

    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.105:1 Hast thou not seen how thy Lord dealt with the possessors of the elephant?105:2 Did He not cause their war to end in confusion?105:3 And send against them birds in flocks?105:4 Casting at them decreed stones –105:5 So He rendered them like straw eaten up?

    December 22, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
  18. Reason

    Is it delusion? Is his secret strength industrial-sized delusion about the world around him?

    December 22, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
  19. yuck


    No one on earth would do that we get the fact that his faith is so strong that he feels strength enough to do that but PLEASE stop showing that picture! At least bury it inside the story!

    December 22, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • JeffinIL

      It seems to me that you don't get it already.
      This is how we are ALL supposed to treat each other, especially those in the direst of need.

      December 22, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • Salvador

      Right on, I would write the same thing if CNN posted a picture of the Pope kissing you.

      December 22, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  20. lilyq

    The Pope's strength is no secret. It comes from God.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • The Flamingo Kid

      Actually it comes from Satan.

      December 22, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
    • Canadian

      This is an article about Catholicism, the one true God Zeus has no place here...

      December 22, 2013 at 2:27 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.