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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. Sam Bo

    You can despise god

    December 23, 2013 at 10:45 am |
  2. Sam Bo

    God's right to choose

    December 23, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  3. Dyslexic doG

    At this time of the year, I send out a reminder to all my friends:

    Jesus wasn't born, he was written!

    December 23, 2013 at 10:37 am |
  4. Dyslexic doG

    "cognitive dissonance":

    Mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. The concept was introduced by the psychologist Leon Festinger (1919–89) in the late 1950s. He and later researchers showed that, when confronted with challenging new information, most people seek to preserve their current understanding of the world by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding the new information or by convincing themselves that no conflict really exists.

    this peculiar human trait has kept religion going through the centuries despite the mountains of evidence proving it's foolishness.

    December 23, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • Dandintac

      I've read Festinger! I did a paper on Cognitive Dissonance in college–mainly the aspect of selection. Cognitive Dissonance is used to filter out excess information. We select for things that agree with our previously held beliefs, screening out things that conflict and cause dissonance.

      December 28, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
  5. Dyslexic doG

    "faith": believing something without a single shred of proof.

    it amazes me that religious folk see this word as a badge of honor while any logical thinking person sees it as a mark of foolishness or insanity.

    quite a disconnect.

    December 23, 2013 at 10:32 am |
  6. florsete - Espaço da Katia

    My vision of Pope Francis ...
    http://florsete.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/pope-francis/

    December 23, 2013 at 7:32 am |
  7. Imabeliever

    God be with you all!

    December 23, 2013 at 7:25 am |
    • Reality # 2

      Which god, mine or yours?

      December 23, 2013 at 10:29 am |
  8. Reality # 2

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

    A 21st century summary:

    Christmas, the embellished story of the birth of a simple, preacher man named Jesus.

    As per most contemporary NT exegetes, his parents were Mary and Joseph although some say Jesus was a mamzer, the result of a pre-marital relationship between Mary and a Roman soldier.

    http:// http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html

    Jesus was not born in Bethlehem at least the one we are familiar with and there were no pretty wingie thingies singing/talking from on high, no slaughter of the innocents by Herod, no visiting wise men and no escape to Egypt.

    "Mark's gospel, the most historical of the four gospels, does not even mention the event.

    And from Professor Gerd Ludemann in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 269-272, "The historical yield of the Lukan infancy narrative in respect to the birth of Jesus is virtually nil.

    Matt 1:18-25: , pp. 123-124, "The fathering of Jesus from the Holy Spirit and his birth from the virgin Mary are unhistorical". Ludemann gives a very detailed analysis to support his conclusions. One part being the lack of attestations to these events and the late time strata of said story.

    "Lüdemann [pp. 261-63) discounts Luke's account as a legend deriving from Jewish Hellenistic circles that were concerned to hold together the procreation of the Spirit, the authentic sonship of the Messiah and the virginal conception. "

    Then there are these additional conclusions:

    Professor Bruce Chilton

    "In [Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography] (2000), Chilton develops the idea of Jesus as a mamzer; someone whose irregular birth circu-mstances result in their exclusion from full participation in the life of the community. He argues for the natural pa-ternity of Joseph and finds no need for a miraculous conception. In his subsequent reconstruction of Jesus' life, Chilton suggests that this sustained personal experience of exclusion played a major role in Jesus' self-ident-ity, his concept of God and his spiritual quest.

    Professor John Dominic Crossan

    "In [Historical Jesus] (p. 371) Crossan treats this cluster, like 007 Of Davids Lineage, as an example of the interplay of prophecy and history in the development of the Jesus traditions.

    "In [Birth of Christianity] (pp. 26-29) Crossan uses Luke's account of Jesus' conception and birth to explore ethical issues concerning the public interpretation of the past. He notes the tendency of Christian scholars to disregard "pagan" birth legends while investing great effort in the defence of biblical birth narratives. He concludes:

    I do not accept the divine conception of either Jesus or Augustus as factual history, but I believe that God is incarnate in the Jewish peasant poverty of Jesus and not in the Roman imperial power of Augustus. "

    "The following ancient parallels to Jesus' miraculous conception should be noted:

    Birth of Moses (Exod 2:1-10)
    Birth of Plato (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 3.45) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 507]
    Birth of Alexander the Great (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, 2.1-3.5) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 502f]
    Birth of Apollonius (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, I.4) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 505]"

    And some final words from Thomas Jefferson, not a contemporary NT scholar, but indeed a very learned man:

    "And the day will come,
    when the mystical generation of Jesus,
    by the Supreme Being as His Father,
    in the womb of a virgin,
    will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva”

    Letter to John Adams, from Monticello, April 11, 1823.

    Conclusion: Christmas is historically a non-event. Ditto for the Feast of the Magi and the solemnity of Mary aka New Years day.

    December 23, 2013 at 7:09 am |
  9. Topher

    Believing in God (or gods) and/or Jesus is like a massive fallen tree in your path...JUMP over it quick! and keep going, keep learning, avoid the false religions with their silly deities and lies of after life...

    December 23, 2013 at 12:46 am |
    • Calhusker

      Don't you have something better to do? Your comment has nothing to do with the story except that the Pope is a religious figure..

      December 23, 2013 at 1:33 am |
    • sam stone

      Depending on the perspective, Gopher, all religions are false to someone

      That being said, we acknowledge that you and only you, know the TRUE religion

      coward

      December 23, 2013 at 6:02 am |
    • sam stone

      Waait a minute. That's not the real Gopher, it makes far too much sense

      December 23, 2013 at 6:04 am |
  10. Denise

    I have a good Jewish friend who today converted to Catholicism due to this good Pope's leadership by example. She knows who she is. And her life will be changed forever.

    December 23, 2013 at 12:15 am |
    • Sharon

      My god, your God, my God, your god, which God, this god, that God, these gods, those Gods, omg!!!

      (who cares, as long as this new religion gives me one of them soul things that allows ME to live after I die)
      (and there's love, and love, and love, and bliss, and oh so righteous in our purity 🙂

      December 23, 2013 at 12:42 am |
      • Topher

        Humans should realize that monotheism is all about EGO. The self, ME ME ME, save MY "eternal" "soul" (as if either of those is possible)

        Francis is a "neat dude".

        But ultimately these theistic belief systems will fail in the light of logic, reason, and due diligence on our part.
        Be well Humans, lose the god(s)...

        December 23, 2013 at 12:48 am |
      • Calhusker

        Sharon, why don't you take your hateful message some where else.

        December 23, 2013 at 1:36 am |
        • Reality # 2

          Hateful??? No. Required sarcasm? Yes.

          December 23, 2013 at 7:12 am |
        • Dandintac

          How is it "hateful"–because you don't like what she says? If you disagree, that makes it "hateful"?

          December 28, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
  11. Denise

    I have a good friend who today converted to Catholicism due to this good Pope's leadership by example. She knows who she is. And her life will be changed forever.

    December 23, 2013 at 12:14 am |
  12. Holly

    I have been waiting for this day! I was jumping around my house passionately reading the words to my family. Finally the real truth! I have been teaching these tenets already! Wow! This is exciting! Listen and hear my friends, Jesus was the example of what he speaks and follows! Francis is following the example and he truly gets the message.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
  13. brian

    Why all these happy talk articles about the pope? It's getting to by silly.

    December 22, 2013 at 10:08 pm |
    • Keith

      Because he is changing the church in fundamental ways.

      December 23, 2013 at 1:09 am |
      • Calhusker

        Because his style is different in delivering the Gospel. Beliefs are still the same. The Pope cannot change Catholic Doctrine even if he wanted to.

        December 23, 2013 at 1:39 am |
        • Science Works

          And the doctrine of – fear of hell is good for children ?

          December 23, 2013 at 7:33 am |
        • Keith

          No one said he was changing Doctrine in this article. But it seems that you do not understand that the beliefs and actions of the Franciscans are much different than the Dominicans, and that there are many different sects of Catholics. So, in that sense yes Doctrine does change.

          December 23, 2013 at 11:40 am |
  14. SixDegrees

    I am very impressed by the life Pope Francis is living – and has lived. He and I are never going to come to agree on a pretty wide variety of topics, but he is a man I can respect and admire nonetheless. I wish him well, and encourage much of what he has undertaken.

    December 22, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
  15. Barry

    Beautiful article about a faithful servant. As pleasantly surprised as we all are, I think it is good to remember that he is a man. He is imperfect and still in need of a saviour.

    December 22, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
    • pwb

      Usually this kind of "just a man" statement comes from Protestants and/or anti-Catholics. I just want to clear up, there is not a single Catholic who believes that a Pope, including Pope Francis, doesn't need Jesus Christ as Savior. A Pope is, in many ways, a pastor for the world.. and we believe he is chosen for this mission by the Holy Spirit working through the Cardinals that elect him, just as we believe that the Holy Spirit calls each and every human being to his vocation (doctor, lawyer, teacher, etc.)

      But certainly still any Pope is still a man and a sinner like everyone else. He even says he goes to confession every two weeks, which is quite often!

      December 22, 2013 at 9:31 pm |
      • Calhusker

        You hit it on the mark pwb. Good comment.

        December 23, 2013 at 1:41 am |
      • Petros

        Sin. Hmm. You appear to have that nailed, at least as far as the Pope is also afflicted with it. But what actually is it? I understand "doing unto others" – most people get that. But sins? As defined in the bible? Crowd control seems to be what they are for, but what are they exactly?

        December 23, 2013 at 3:17 am |
        • Keith

          Are you having trouble with the word "sin" or do you really not know the list of transgressions that the Desert Cults call sins.

          December 23, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
  16. T

    ....Being the spokesman of GOD.........being with GOD.............Peace, and wellbeing for ALL, not just the rich........Maybe the GOP can reconcile for me how w Republican can be a GOOD CHRISTIAN, and a GOOD Catholic............

    December 22, 2013 at 8:26 pm |
    • Calhusker

      What does the Republican party have to do with this story? Wrong article.

      December 23, 2013 at 1:42 am |
  17. Advent

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HGVNzgUxE-g

    December 22, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
  18. Jed Knight

    You are all a bunch of tools and cretins

    December 22, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
    • Bubba Gump

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KW343K1-upo

      December 22, 2013 at 7:46 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.