More than one commentator has suggested recently that Pope Francis is all symbolism and little substance. I disagree. For one thing, symbolism is substance.
Here are seven areas in which Pope Francis has made real differences, at once symbolic and substantial, which are unlikely to be overturned by a future pope.
1. The end of the imperial papacy: “Conservative” theologians never tire of saying that the Church is not a democracy. That’s true. But neither is it a monarchy, never mind an empire. It is, as Cardinal Avery Dulles often said, “a community of disciples.”
Pope Francis is no imperial figure. He does not live in the Apostolic Palace, but in a guesthouse. He has avoided much of the traditional papal regalia. He dislikes the idea of a papal court, with its myriad of ceremonial attendants, and he travels in a modest car.
2. More effective communication: Traditionally, popes have spoken with extreme caution and avoided spontaneous comments. Now, Francis gives spontaneous daily homilies. He speaks freely to crowds – and never over their heads. His engaging and open style of communication has mesmerized the media, and it is often said of Pope Francis that “The world is listening.”
3. Initial reform of the Curia (Vatican offices and departments): It has long been a complaint that the curia is too powerful and, yes, imperious. It has tended to boss bishops around.
Recently, bishops have spoken about a new mood in (many) curial offices, one that is more respectful of local bishops and national bishops’ conferences. The bishops of Japan have, for instance, stated that Rome is now much more respectful of the authority of their bishops’ conference on liturgical matters, and is more willing to let them judge what is best for their country.
4. Evangelical style: From the beginning, Pope Francis has said that he does not want a church that is introverted, turned in on itself. The Church, he believes, must stop being obsessed with itself, but must go out in mission. He wants a Church “for the world.”
5. A spirit of trust: Bishops no longer fear Vatican critique or correction when stating their opinions. Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna (always on my list of papal candidates) has said that a certain atmosphere of fear has evaporated and that there is a greater incidence of honesty and respect.
6. A patient leadership style: Pope Francis has shown enormous patience with his critics. A number of cardinals have expressed alarm at the general “confusion” on faith and morals Francis has supposedly sown. Catholics, they say, are disturbed by his teaching. No doubt some are, but they are the small, always complaining, minority. Pope Francis tolerates them patiently.
7. Last, but not least, themes of mercy, charity, forgiveness, solidarity and compassion are now at the fore of papal teaching and speaking. This is not to suggest that previous popes have failed in this regard, only to point out the extraordinary manner in which these themes stand at the heart and center of Pope Francis’ ministry. Francis’ famous “Who am I to judge?” question (which most Catholics in the pews – and not just “liberal” ones – generally welcome) has made an extraordinary impression on the Church and on society at large.
Pope Francis is not a man of empty symbolism, but of symbolism with real and concrete substance. He has achieved an enormous amount in his few short years as pope. May he live long that we may see even greater achievements in the style (therefore, substance) of papal ministry.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.