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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. Thomas

    Pope Francis represents a deep commitment to the Gospels and to the renewall of the Church.

    December 22, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
    • William Bellah

      What is truth? first define truth and then define "true faith" , a faith that lasts to the end through thick and thin?

      December 22, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
      • Calhusker

        The truth is Jesus Christ.

        December 23, 2013 at 1:44 am |
  2. Matt

    BRAVO!!!!! Well thought out, well written, and I agree. Pope Francis is the ANTIDOTE to liberalism, secularism, the new atheism, and feminism...which have ensconced the modern world with lies and deception, with falsehood and empty promises, with cruelty and misguidedness. People are flocking to The Church (which is Jesus) because they are receiving the message loud and clear: RUN from the world of darkness and lies ...run to the Light.

    December 22, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
    • Martin Snapp

      The pope is the pope of liberals, feminists, secularists and, yes, atheists, too, as he himself has said. Stop conflating your own political beliefs with the word of God. Your pride is showing.

      December 22, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
    • TRuth

      You don't seem to understand the vatican and the pope. It's the big con.

      Imagine children's destroyed lives and now this guy deflects.

      December 22, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
  3. jlf

    i'm not Catholic. i don't practice any religion but i believe in God and Jesus Christ. to me the conclave could not have picked a better leader for their church. you can see the compassion,mercy,tenderness, patience, and acceptance in his eyes and mannerisms when he walks amongst his audience.

    December 22, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
    • TRuth

      They shouldn't be held accountable for crimes against children? This pope was a cardinal who helped deny abused children needed help.

      December 22, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
      • Martin Snapp

        I'm not aware that Cardinal Bergolio participated in the cover up. What's your evidence?

        December 22, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
        • TRuth

          The cover ups were worldwide. The success depended on all the bishops and cardinals participation. If for one moment someone thinks a cardinal or pope knew nothing or heard nothing they are being naive. The cardinals are required to take an oath, 'Cardinal Oath'. This oath is a promise to lie if the truth may harm the reputation of the church. An oath as that alone is a direct example of dishonesty.

          This is a tight group that works together and all must participate.

          December 22, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
        • Martin Snapp

          You still haven't provided evidence of his personal participation. Did he transfer any pedophile priests? Did he refuse to release information to the civil authorities? I don't know the answer to these questions. Do you?
          And you must admit that he's kicking butt and taking names now, including his snub of Cardinal Law.

          December 22, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
        • TRuth

          My experience is direct. So–do-m1-zed at 8 by a now bishop today.

          December 22, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
        • TRuth

          This bishop welcomed the new pope's att1tude and commission to protect children. In fact this bishop publicly stated that only a few bad priests harmed the church. Other bishops know he's a pedo and some of them are too. Yet he's one of the ones who covers it up. He nd other bishops lobby to stop laws that would expose the crimes. Yes, he and the others lobby against children victims.

          December 22, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
        • TRuth

          It's a game they all play, pretending to do something. The last pope did the same as this pope. It's all P.R. and nothing more. Everything is in the future where nothing will ever happen. That's their game and the play it well. Pope and all.

          December 22, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
        • Martin Snapp

          You are still not providing evidence, only allegations. I'm perfectly willing to accept the possibility that you might be right about him, but I'll need something more solid.

          December 22, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
        • TRuth

          This pope was part of the orchestrated cover ups, they all were required to. Did you hear him before becoming a pope demanding the vatican expose those who covered up the abuses? No. because he was part of it and it's all a game of further destruction to the victims.

          December 22, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
      • K

        As Martin has pointed out, you have provided no proof (largely because there is no proof to support your claims). But the point is that even if the Pope did everything you wanted (what do you want him to do again? Oh yeah, you never said.) ... you would never be satisfied. You would just say that it wasn't soon enough. Or it isn't enough. Just move the goal posts because your problem isn't with the Vatican's response to this scandal, it's with the Church itself. You have a beef with the Church and are just using this as a means to attack her. At least be honest about it.

        December 22, 2013 at 8:41 pm |
  4. Emmanuel

    Dear Jesus:
    I admit that I am a sinner and need to be saved. I realize that You alone can save me from my sins, I ask right now for Your forgiveness and salvation. I believe that You died for my sins and that You rose from the grave. I am sorry for my sins and ask that You come into my heart and take control of my life. I ask Your Holy Spirit to lead me and guide me so that I may live for You as my Savior and Lord. In Your Name. Amen.,.

    December 22, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • Lionly Lamb

      Sired Emmanuel...

      Be one not like those praying openly in the streets for they have found their just treats here and they take no thought upon the hereafter...

      December 22, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
  5. Lionly Lamb

    Legalize hemp farming and regulate the medicinal uses of cannabis while taxing the recreational usages of marijuana... Opening up the industrial market baselines with a multitude of hemp based products would broaden the marketable economies thereby giving rise to strengthen any nation’s gross domestic production needs. Strictly regulating medicinal cannabis would ensure consumers of acquiring the exact medicinal quality all the time… Taxing the recreational usage of marijuana would help to stabilize any nation’s financial indebtedness…

    December 22, 2013 at 5:39 pm |
  6. Larry Mandrell

    One thing is certain, Pope Francis draws the atheist trolls like a moth to a Flame!

    December 22, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • Martin Snapp

      He also draws the fundamentalist trolls. The guy is obviously doing something right!

      December 22, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
      • Keith

        I believe you are right

        December 22, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
  7. Jesus' Beloved

    The Pope's secret strength = Obedience to the Word of God.

    "This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you."
    When we have love and compassion for each other, then we are moved to destroy the works of the devil in people's lives.

    December 22, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
    • Martin Snapp

      By "we are moved to destroy the works of the devil in people’s lives," I hope you're not trying to sneak anti-gay sentiments in through the back door. It's a slippery slope to the sin of pride. Judge not lest ye be judged.

      December 22, 2013 at 5:26 pm |
      • Jesus' Beloved

        Most people who are suffering with pain, disease, mental illness etc. People who are homeless, starving etc. These are people oppressed by the devil. (I didn't say all cases, but most).
        It's when you walk by a person in the supermarket, if you stopped to say hello you realize they have a sick child or they're depressed or something. You in turn, moved by love and compassion are able to minister to this person's need.

        That's destroying the works of the devil... destroying hell here on earth... Living the Kingdom. Love.
        God Bless.

        December 22, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
        • Martin Snapp

          I'll accept that as a friendly amendment!

          December 22, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
        • Lionly Lamb

          Sired Jesus' Beloved wrote, "Most people who are suffering with pain, disease, mental illness etc. People who are homeless, starving etc. These are people oppressed by the devil. (I didn't say all cases, but most)."

          "Oppressed by the devil".?

          How dorky... Now if you said such people were mostly federally disenfranchised, politically robbed and socially marinated I might have believed you...

          December 22, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
        • Jesus' Beloved

          LL...
          LOL, I guess it all boils down to perspective.

          Peace & Blessings

          December 22, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
  8. EX Catholic

    The RCC is nothing more than an idolatrous Politico-religious organization with financial and social interests around the world. It is not the church that Jesus is building.

    December 22, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
  9. DN3

    I couldn't agree more. It's about time some one with common sense and practicality became pope!

    December 22, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
  10. rosethornne

    I think the REAL question is, why is it so astonishing when the leader of your cult actually follows the teachings of the founder of your cult?

    What were all those OTHER pope guys doing for so many years and why didn't anyone object?

    December 22, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
    • MD

      Rose, the Catholic Church is NOT a cult. Quit hiding your head in a thorn bush.

      December 22, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
      • aldewacs2

        After a cult gets enough followers, it is promoted to a religion.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
    • Noneya

      Why does it matter to you when someone believes in something you don't? Why should they be forced to believe in what you believe in? It's just as cultish.

      December 22, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
      • Firsto

        Some people attach themselves to belief systems and are arrogant and contemptuous toward people who do not think like them. Sometimes these people are theists; other time atheist.

        December 22, 2013 at 5:11 pm |
    • Jesus' Beloved

      You ask a good question, though choosing a provocative word.

      This confirms the end is near and what you will see is the body of Christ is uniting. It might be a slow start now, but it is the beginning.
      And what unites the body of Christ is Love. When we start loving people as Christ loves them, we become single eyed, uniting both Holy Spirit (Wisdom) and Word (Spiritual Weapon). "As Christ is, so are we in this world"... through the power and authority bestowed upon us, we destroy hell here on earth in peoples lives by: heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: [because] freely ye have received, freely give.

      December 22, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
  11. tiredofpc

    Beautifully said, Rev. Rosica. I am not Catholic or even particularly religious. Pope Francis' evident determination to remind all of us to care for one another, to give up greed and embrace the poor and downtrodden as part of our own family is so wonderfully loving. Thank you again for your article.

    December 22, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
    • EighteenCharacters

      Same here I'm not Catholic, not even religious, but I've always had a great appreciation for the underlying message of the New Testament - kindness, compassion, fairness. It's nice to see the leader of the Catholic Church spreading this message. Heck, it's nice to see ANYONE spreading this message. We need it right about now.

      December 22, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
  12. myrtlemaylee

    Beautifully expressed. In all my old geezer life, after decades of "study", I came to realize that Christianity is the simplest religion in the world – but the hardest to live. Because Jesus, in essence, asks us to crucify our egos – a mighty challenge for me. Pope Francis is apparently, IMO, a living example of how to do that. Which enriches the seeds in our hearts – it is possible. It can be real if we do the work. I'm grateful as are many others. God bless us everyone:)

    December 22, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
  13. Observer

    I don't believe in the fairy tales of religion, but if a dude at the head of a multinational multibillion dollar business were actually not controllable by money that would be pretty darn incredible.

    December 22, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
    • Annie

      Judeo-Christian theology precedes fairytales by many thousands of years. Our modern fairytales were born in the 1500's. If anything, fairytales are a spinoff of "relligion", because where else do you get the imagery of evil serpents, divine beings who can appear and disappear, and the concept of good and evil? If anything, fairytales are a pale wimpy imitation of the Bible, a late arrival if you will, and a faded one at that.

      Your statement is a popular putdown and insult aimed at Christianity primarily, but it doesn't hold up. Not for anybody who knows what Christianity is really about. Not for anyone who has the courage to read the Bible for its true meaning.

      December 22, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
    • Mark

      Observer: Well Said.

      December 22, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
  14. Steve

    I'm not going to disagree that this pope is different. He seems to actually care. But let's not pretend for one moment that the only reason that seems so novel is because no pope in recent memory has been so genuine. I read so many articles about how this pope is the real deal, and how he is refocusing the Catholic Church. But what continues to be swept under the rug is the fact that the papacy has been broken for years and occupied by old white men who seem perfectly comfortable surrounding themselves with gold and fine cloth whitest the poor grew in number and wealth continued to consolidate. While priests were molesting children. You need more than one pope to take on the problems that have been mounting as the church ignored them. It's gonna take a whole string of popes that have hearts

    December 22, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
  15. marcos martins

    Well done Rev. While that are some peoples that always will find something wrong with everything, his message and example is so simple, and yet very difficult to some peoples to understand. I'm not a catholic, but im a christian, no one better than him right now to make us fully understand our savior, not with words, but with simple gestures . God bless him.

    December 22, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • truthsayer

      pathetic

      December 22, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  16. pete

    Mother Teresa.... media never mentioned her....and they love this Pope...fill in the blanks

    December 22, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
    • Puhleeeze

      You are joking, right?

      December 22, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
    • a slozomby

      they didnt? she wasnt in the news every day but there were plenty of articles about her.

      December 22, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
    • Martin Snapp

      I the media never mentioned her, how come we all know about her?

      December 22, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
  17. Blessing

    When God removes one of his own, he gives us another one. God is great! He never leave us astray.

    December 22, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
    • Hmmmmm

      God is great because there is always someone who wants a posh job?

      December 22, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
  18. Hmmmmm

    A priest from the Canadian Catholic propaganda ministry telling us that the Pope is great. Oh that's a newsflash.

    December 22, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  19. pete

    Looks like a setup all the way,Pope Benedict resigning ....Why? maybe forced too

    December 22, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
  20. fake fake fake

    PR Stunt !!!

    December 22, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
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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.