The Vision of Pope Francis for the Church

[This week Pray Tell will be posting the talks and panels from the 2014 Collegeville Conference on Liturgy, Music, and the Arts. The following is an abbreviated version of a talk given at the conference.]


In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea, and saying “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

In those days a pope named Francis appeared in Rome, preaching in the parched landscape of a Vatican rocked by scandals, a leadership widely considered “out of touch,” and a people adrift. His words and his example woke people up and turned them around so that they could welcome the reign of God right now! He said things like:

  • I am a sinner, and
  • Who am I to judge? and
  • How I would love a poor church, a church of the poor!

JBaptJohn wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.

Pope Francis wore a plain white robe, and wouldn’t put on that ermine thing. He lived in Casa Santa Marta guest house and ate stuff off the hot table. (They say that in Argentina he even washed dishes!)

At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him…

At that time, all sorts of people started to pay attention to him: atheist journalists, evangelical mega-church pastors, people wearing rainbow sashes, the hoi poloi of every religion including Catholicism, as well as readers of Time, The New Yorker, and The Rolling Stone…

When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” … Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

When he saw many of the people from the Curia and the Institute of the Works of Religion (Vatican Bank) coming to him, he said to them “Listen guys, I am not overly impressed with you. I am going to appoint eight cardinals to work with me and we are going to reorganize the whole shebang!”

And the crowds asked him “What then should we do?” And he said to them in reply, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to him to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He answered them, “Stop collecting more than is prescribed.” Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”

And the crowds asked Pope Francis, “What then should we do?” To the pastors he said “Get out of the sacristy! Go and be with your people; smell like your sheep!” To the wealthy nations he said, “Give up your trickle down economic theories! Address the injustices that hold the poor in bondage.” To the religious he said “Answer the questions of the CDF, but don’t let their investigations dismay you. Continue in your ministry!” To the youth he said “Go out and make a mess! Don’t be afraid to take risks for the sake of the gospel.” He said these things, and many other things besides, to all who came to him, addressing each one, even by telephone.

The people were filled with expectation.

* * *

We are only a little over a year into the papacy of Pope Francis, but already it is clear that we are in one of the most extraordinary pontificates of modern times.

From the day of his election, Pope Francis has shot out of the starting gate like a race horse, and has gotten ahead of most of the issues that mired his predecessor, including the Vati-leaks scandal and corruption at the Vatican Bank. Almost daily, he says or does something newsworthy and manages to walk adroitly along difficult lines, as he did in his trip to the Middle East, that have caused others to stumble. All the while, he displays a ravishingly sincere love and compassion for ordinary people, has a marvelous knack for the memorable phrase, and bears an effective moral authority without moralism.

In a recent NY Tines article the president of Catholic University, John Garvey, said: “Priests and bishops are paying close attention to what he’s saying, and reading it.” Garvey was struck by how often the clergy he talks to mention to him something Pope Francis just said. “I don’t remember hearing that in the past about Benedict and John Paul.”

Attention in the news media isn’t everything, but one has to admit there has been a steady stream of “firsts of Pope Francis” covered eagerly by all sorts of media outlets, and not with the usual hermeneutic of suspicion or glee for poking holes. His apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium published on November 24, 2013 was for a long time rated #1 at Amazon in books on Catholicism. (It has since dropped to #2.) 144 reviews and five stars.

The vision of Pope Francis for the Church is catching the attention of many, and getting high marks. A CBS poll taken on the anniversary of his election showed his popularity rating stands at 68% among Catholics.

Not all are pleased. In the US his challenging teachings about social justice have gotten push-back from economic free-marketers. Advocates of sexual abuse victims are not satisfied that he understands the depths of the scandal. Social conservatives worry about “confusion” introduced by his different approach to hot-button culture war issues. And those sympathetic to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious worry that he is allowing disciplinary actions against them that are unjust.

Nevertheless, 64% of Catholics in that CBS poll said Pope Francis has helped the Church. 27% of Catholic respondents had mixed feelings, but not a single Catholic felt his papacy had hurt the church.

Here are the themes that I see surfacing again and again in the witness and preaching of Pope Francis:








Pope Francis has said little about liturgy as such. He celebrates very much in the style of the liturgical reform of Vatican II. He celebrates with a congregation daily, rather than saying a private Mass. He celebrates almost always versus populum, facing the people. He favors the vernacular. When a choice is taken, such as his decision to wash the feet of women on Holy Thursday, he decides in favor of inclusion. He doesn’t talk about liturgy much, but he does these things, and of course they have been noticed.

Pope Francis has emerged as a “people person.” Universals, as abstractions, hold little interest for him. It is only when universals, such as mercy and compassion, are given flesh in concrete instances that he comes to life and shows his passion and commitment.

I think it is characteristic that he defended Summorum Pontificum not on its own terms but on the terms which were used to argue for the indult established by John Paul II: that it is a pastoral gesture of accommodation.

But we do see two recurring priorities Pope Francis has shown which bear very directly on liturgy.

Access to the sacraments

One of the first instances that Pope Francis highlighted was how shameful it was that a child born out of wedlock should be turned down for baptism. The mother, in distress, had come to Pope Francis when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Yet the story is one he retold, to make a point about access to the sacraments.

One of his “cold calls” in recent months was to a woman who had been told by her pastor that she could not go to communion any longer because she had married a man who was divorced. The woman, who was devout and prayed daily, was much in distress, and Pope Francis advised her to go anyway.

Finally, one of the subjects that has been raised in anticipation of the Synod on the Family is access to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried. The theme of mercy and the question of discernment intersect in this subject

The reform and renewal of the clergy 

Francis told cardinals that they are not “a royal court.” He deems those who strut around in finery as “peacocks.” He inveighed against “airport bishops” and called careerism “a cancer”. He called out pastors who keep their people at a distance and care little for their real struggles. Priests who are more concerned with careers than about caring for those in need are “little monsters” to him, and he has warned them against becoming “abstract ideologists” too.

Bishops, according to Francis, should be “guardians of doctrine, not to measure how far the world lives from the truth it contains, but to fascinate the world, to enchant the world with the beauty of love, to seduce it with the free gift of the Gospel.”

Archbishop Tobin of Indianapolis in a recent interview reported that he heard from two of his brother bishops that bishops and priests that they were “very discouraged by Pope Francis, because he is challenging them.”

Well, they are being challenged. And just think of how their preaching and presiding will improve, if they put aside ideology and careerism and go out to the margins, and listen to people. Just imagine how wonderful it would be if more of our bishops understood their guardianship of doctrine as a call to “enchant the world with the beauty of love… seduce [the world] with the free gift of the Gospel.” Consider the ripple effect it would have if, instead of small-minded rules, the faithful would encounter in the Church a great-hearted approach to the sacraments.

What are we to do?

The crowd stirred up by the witness and preaching of John the Baptist immediately asked “What are we to do, then?” When confronted with Pope Francis, as liturgists and musicians, I think our question likewise might be: “What are we to do, then?”

We’re not, most of us, preachers. We’re not bishops or cardinals. We’re not gate-keepers of the sacraments, for the most part.

So… What are we to do?

Here are a few ideas that occur to me, to which I would invite you to add your own thoughts and creative suggestions.

  • We might ask ourselves: How can I take my ministry out – metaphorically or literally – to the periphery, to the people who don’t come to us, but who need the good news and the joy we have tasted in our faith experience? I think of this especially in music. What are the “y’all come” events that your parish has, or might have, where music and the arts could cross boundaries to those who feel distant, or orphaned, or who have no faith community to call their own?
  • We might ask ourselves: What have I done for the cause of ecumenism lately? How can we be people who “find our brother”? Can we find occasions to pray and work together more often. Such occasions need not be limited to Eucharist, for certainly from the Catholic perspective the situation is not ripe for Eucharistic sharing. But there are other kinds of sharing.
  • We might ask ourselves: Do we bring a full measure of ingenuity and art to the celebration of the sacraments of healing: Penance and Anointing of the Sick, in their communal forms? People in need do receive something very important from these sacraments… if they get them! Do we let these opportunities languish as “private” celebrations to which people might or might not find it easy to go?
  • How are we doing in the department of “access to the sacraments” overall? I recently heard a horrific story about someone who was an active parishioner for 30 years, as well as a volunteer catechist, a daily communicant, and is now an Alzheimer’s patient. But the real people who have lost their memory are the parish priests. One whom she knew well claims he never heard of her. Another refused to bring her communion because the home she lives in is not in the parish. There is a priest who visits that home to say Mass, but she is unable to come to the Mass. When her guardian asked this priest if he could bring communion to her, he said no. We can, we must, do better than this.
  • Finally, we can probably ask ourselves challenging questions similar to the ones that Pope Francis has posed to priests and bishops, mutatis mutandis. How are we carrying out our own ministry? Is it a lot “about me” or is it truly joyful, focused outward toward others, and imbued with the awareness that the Reign of God is a reign of justice, love, and peace?

There is no human community, be it a choir or a liturgy committee or a pious society or the ushers, that is immune to the impulses of vanity, turf wars, small-minded rules, or neglect of the outsider.

  • Does it take “forever” for newcomers to your parish to feel they belong?
  • Do we indulge the prima donnas, but never take the time to help someone who might be coming from another culture or language, and who might not “fit in” so easily with the unwritten rules of our groups?
  • Do persons with disabilities make us feel uncomfortable? And, if so, how can we deal with those feelings without telegraphing the message to that person that “we don’t really want you here; you’re too much trouble.”

Take a moment, and ask yourself, “What am I doing a little differently in my ministry already, because of Pope Francis? Is there anything I dream of doing in order to respond to his example and his challenging witness?”


I began with a whimsical comparison of Pope Francis to John the Baptist, but I hope you realize that I was not entirely speaking in jest. I picked John the Baptist, because John was the one who prepared the way. He was not the Messiah, but he pointed to “the one who is to come who is mightier than I.” John was not “it”; and neither is Pope Francis. Jesus is “it.”

But I think what we have in Pope Francis is someone who is pointing toward the One who is mightier.

John the Baptist was an eschatological figure. His prophetic message was “Now is the time… Get ready… The Kingdom of God is at hand.”

I was having an email conversation about Francis with a friend, Steve Millies, who gave me a wonderful phrase to describe what is distinctive about Pope Francis. He called it “eschatological confidence.” He was contrasting this to what we’ve seen in some of our bishops, whose characteristic stance toward the world is far more worried and defensive. Underneath the bravado there’s a fear that the world can hurt us, that the Church faces opponents who threaten our life for real, and if we don’t do the right thing, the world may win.

There’s none of that in Pope Francis. He comes at the world from a position of eschatological confidence. We cannot fail. We cannot fail, because the victory is already won in Jesus. Therefore can afford to take risks. We can afford to laugh. We can afford to be generous.

I’d like to leave you with that thought, for your life and for your ministry. We can afford to take risks. We can afford to laugh and be generous. Because the victory is already ours.

Thank you.


  1. This is a lovely, thoughtful, challenging and hope-filled reflection on the ministry and message of this pope who is certainly an agent of hope in the church today.

    Thanks for the concrete questions in the “What are we to do?” section. More than once I’ve read something by Francis that challenges me in some way and asked myself: “Does he mean me?” Of course, he certainly does.

    His anti-careerism theme for clergy is encouraging (Archb. Tobin’s comment was quite discouraging), because it opens the way, for clergy so minded, to re-center instead on that breakthrough insight of the council regarding what ordained ministry is for: service. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to lay ecclesial ministers – to anyone who by role or position has power over others in the church. An example is those (again, ordained or lay) who determine or influence the access others have to the sacraments – an access Francis places under the rubric of mercy. (If his acceptance of Summorum Pontificum comes from the same motivation of mercy in providing access to sacraments, this is indeed something SP was intended to foster – though there was more to it than that, as well.)

    I’ve never actually watched him celebrate Mass start to finish, to see his ars celebrandi in celebrating the church’s liturgy; this post invites me to do that.

    Thanks for the concluding remarks on “eschatological confidence,” laughter (joy) and risk. They reminded me of these words in The Joy of the Gospel (no. 33) about transposing “pastoral ministry in a missionary key.” He writes: “I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style, and methods of evangelization in their respective communities.” Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict all said pretty much the same thing in their own way, but Francis gives it a new vitality. “I encourage everyone to apply the guidelines found in this document generously and courageously, without inhibitions or fear.” Imagine what could happen, if we did.

    1. @Bill Johnston – comment #3:
      Bill, special thanks for this thoughtful response. I like what you say about the “breakthrough to service” and I do believe this has the potential to be a lasting gift that Pope Francis is giving us. But we are an ornery people, and we’ll see how it goes — perhaps with enough reminding? I do share your sincere feeling of being addressed and helpfully challenged by the words of Pope Francis.

      The call to creative missionary outreach is a truly wonderful one. Yes, just imagine.

  2. What a wonderful, well written post. Like Papa Francisco’s writing it is well worth spending time reflecting on Rita’s post.

  3. Rita….a wonderful talk. I appreciate your writings. My favorite image Francis has used lately to refer to the church is “Mama’s House” and he wasn’t referring to the Virgin Mary this time. He was using this image to convey openness, welcome, responding to the person coming in the door. I suspect it is an image that comes from his own childhood. I grew up in rural Indiana, my parents being rather poor farmers. My mother was German, and a great cook. My dad was Italian and just someone wonderful to be around. Everyone who knew my family in that community knew that if they showed up at our door, one of my parents would be there to greet them and then the next words out of their mouth would be “Have you had a cup of coffee? Have you had something to eat?” Of course the guest would know my mom had the best baked goods around. Isn’t this what church should be? We have the best “baked goods around” in the Bread of Life. Our cup of coffee is a cup of wine that is the Cup of Love. Offering this food is what the church should be doing and greeting the person before they even get all the way to the door. So, Mama’s House resonates with me. I hope that this vision of church comes to be. I see Francis as the one who points to Jesus standing at the door of Mama’s House welcoming all to come in.

    1. @Reyanna Rice – comment #6:
      Reyanna, thank you for this beautiful and personal witness. I had missed Pope Francis’s use of the image “Mama’s house” and I like it very much. Yes, this is very much what the Church should be. I will remember this.

  4. Rita, Heartfelt thanks. This is so positive and extremely challenging. It’s “Gospel” for our times and situation.

  5. Outstanding article with pertinent analogy of Francis and John. Good concrete suggestions. The one sour note, disappointing for me, was the statement that the Eucharist is “not yet ripe (!) for sharing. This arrogant posture of Roman Catholicism since the 16th century is a long overdue scandal to be corrected. When Jesus (i.e. the writers of Scripture) said Take and eat. surely that was directed to ALL humankind, not just the members of the ‘club’. In our day is this ‘sacrament’ seen by mature thinking adults nothing more than a piece of blessed bread that reminds us of Jesus gift to ALL humankind?

    1. @charles m warthen – comment #9:
      Charles, thank you for sharing this response.

      Just to clarify, what I said was crafted carefully, and I did not say the Eucharist was unripe! Here is the exact line: “from the Catholic perspective the situation is not ripe for Eucharistic sharing” — it’s the situation vis a vis church unity, not the Eucharist, that is in view in my comments.

      Also, I was careful to state that it is “from the Catholic point of view” because of course from the point of view of several other Christian communities who practice an “open table” communion polity, the situation seems to them ready for inter-communion right now.

      I think the question “what are you doing for the cause of ecumenism” however, is the question of the day, and I hate to see us throw up our hands because of the Church’s current eucharistic discipline, which only permits inter-communion in very few, very special circumstances. There is A LOT we can do together, which will change the shape of things to come, if we do it with charity and boldness and integrity and prayer.

      I will pass over your question about what “mature thinking adults” think about the sacrament of the Eucharist, because the answer is varied (seriously so) and I think you ask that as a rhetorical question anyway. To tell you what I think, however, based on the study of scripture and liturgical history and theology, I think that Eucharist is intended for all in the way that discipleship is intended for all. It takes some doing to get there.

  6. Thank you to everyone who commented here. I am unable to post the ppt file, but would be happy to email it to anyone who wants it. If you note this in the comment box I will be able to forward it to you. (Clay, I have your request, but anyone else.)

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #11:
      Rereading your article again & grow in appreciation for it. Will it be available in full? Am I, at this late stage able to receive copy of ppt.file?

      1. @John Frauenfelder – comment #20:
        No problem, John. File has been sent.

        Unfortunately, the text above is all that’s available by way of “full article.” In the live talk, I explained and expanded on the points in the talk which appear as a list. But there is no text for that, as I did it from memory.

  7. One thing that it was not possible to convey in the text (and alas the video as well as the powerpoint failed) was that at the end of my talk Nathan Chase walked on the stage with a life size cardboard cutout of Pope Francis — to the intense merriment of all present!

    Several of us had our pictures taken with the cardboard Francis, in fact.

    Wish you could have been there!

  8. I, too, really enjoyed your talk, Rita — a great blend of scholarship and…gasp! humor. Thanks very much. I would be delighted to have a copy of the PPT if that’s possible.

  9. Rita, thank you very much for posting this. Would appreciate a copy of the .ppt file, and (if not included there) the citation for Pope Francis’ words on the manner of bishops being “guardians of doctrine.”

    1. @David Scholl – comment #18:
      Both sent! (I did it at once but forgot to post here.) Thanks for asking, David. Isn’t that a superb quote? Would that all bishops might be “guardians of doctrine” in such a splendid way.

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