Viewpoint: Are Pope Francis’ Achievements Substantial or Mere Symbolism?

by M. Francis Mannion

More than one commentator has suggested recently that Pope Francis is all symbolism and little substance. I disagree. (For one thing, I think symbolism is substance.)

Here are six areas in which Pope Francis has made real differences 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, not mind an empire. It is, as Cardinal Avery Dulles 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. He travels in a modest car, even on occasion on a bus (with cardinals).

2. More effective communication. Traditionally, popes have spoken with extreme caution and avoided spontaneous comments. Now, Francis gives daily homilies off the cuff. 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. Bishops’ conferences do not want a repeat of the Vatican procedures for approving liturgical translations, as occurred in the English-speaking world.

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.” That includes getting away from internal obsession with liturgical matters.

5. A spirit of openness. Some bishops have said that there is a new openness in the Vatican generally. Bishops needs 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. Pope Francis has, for instance, shown himself open to the prospect of married priests in clergy-poor regions of the Church.

6. 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 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 fifteen months as Pope. May he live long that we may see even greater achievements in the style (therefore, substance) of papal ministry.


Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.


  1. i agree with the main point of the article. It all depends on how long
    he is Pope to know how much he will change concrete situatutions but that is not the hard part. as in all social and institutional change, what really matters is to change the internal culture. and that seems to be happening. just think of the problems and inner culture the year before he become Pope.
    Of course no one can make concrete changes in a short time or change such a culture in a few years (have not all the Pope’s since Paul Vl tried hard to clean up the banking mess?) He has given his program in “The Joy of the Gospel” and has brought a new vitality and sense of hope that no one was expecting 16 months ago. it is pretty amazing.

  2. Is the papacy not a monarchy? We’ve certainly used those titles, trappings, ceremonials, and governance style for ages upon ages. I’m most glad for Francis’ reforms, but if the next pope is so inclined he could reinstate a monarchical style in short order. I wouldn’t expect one billion Roman Catholics to storm the gates of the Vatican.

    1. @Scott Pluff – comment #3:I think that I agree, Note that it is “style”. The leader of North Korea dresses modestly but has a people living in abject subservience. Monarchs in Europe may have fine carriages and crowns but live in democracies with free citizens.
      I wonder if Pope Francis is more gentle than Benedict in exercising authority. It is not the vestments that count in this, nor is it the vehicles used.

      It would be interesting to understand if the reference to “imperial” is intended to refer purely to style. Most empires give the peoples real opportunities and do not try to hold them in subjugation and this is key to the survival of the empire. Compare the lives of the Roman and Nazi empires in this way.

  3. A few days ago, a report was released about a meeting that the pope had with the Frranciscans of the Immaculate. Francis told them that he does not want to deviate from Benedict’s intentions as far Summorum Pontificum is concerned, and that those who wish to make use of the Extraordinary Form should be free to do so.
    He also reiterated that he considers Archbishop Angelo Marchetto as the best interpreter of Vatican II. (Marchetto is a huge supporter of Benedict’s approach to interpretin Vatican II)
    It seems that at least on these issues, there won’t be a change of substance.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with Fr. Mannion’s observations. While the next Pope could theoretically exercise his primacy in an imperial fashion, it is very difficult to imagine the electors choosing such a candidate. I believe that the kind of leadership that Francis is giving (in both style and substance) will soon achieve a tipping point that will make it all but impossible to reverse. Can you imagine a successor moving back into the palace? The reaction would be swift, dealing a death blow to the new evangelization.

  5. My usual feelings of disappointment that Roman Catholics don’t believe/think/understand/operate from an understanding that symbols are real, and can be substantial. (Hence the horrid USA Today question from years ago: Is communion really the Body and Blood of Jesus, or is it a symbol? Correct RC answer is YES!)

  6. I can’t quite tell. Style and substance can conflict; as noted by other commenters.

    The most striking thing about substantial style or stylish substance with Pope Francis from my perspective is how markedly his Ignatian self-management has helped free him from letting fear and anxiety be substantial rudders of his self-expression. It is rare for such a person to be promoted to significant leadership in the Roman church. It’s the most important quality about his leadership, in my view.

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