What Does Pope Francis Mean to You?

Francis electionToday is the 4th anniversary of Pope Francis’s appearance on the loggia after his election on March 13, 2013.

There is much on the internet for the anniversary analyzing this unique pope and his unique ministry. See for example, see this fascinating interview with Rocco D’Ambrosio, author of Will Pope Francis Pull It Off? The Challenge of Church Reform.

But there is also a very personal dimension for each of us. In honor of Pope Francis’s election, four Pray Tell writers share what Pope Francis means to them and how he has affected their prayer life, discipleship, theological work, and ministry.

Teresa Berger:

Teresa BergerI know this will sound exceedingly odd, but I experienced the moment when Pope Francis first appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s four years ago akin to the moment when I first saw the face of my newborn son.

The reason for the odd parallel is this: about nine month prior to March 13, 2013, in the summer of 2012, I felt a sudden, unexpected, deep call to prayer. This call to prayer was extraordinarily specific; and it was for a person no one at that point in time knew. In the preceding weeks, I had witnessed Pope Benedict XVI’s increasing frailty and wondered what kind of  “formation “ for the Papal office a successor would benefit from. The answer was simple: No one is ever openly and explicitly formed for that role.

The sudden call to prayer I experienced was related to that realization. I committed to praying daily for the Holy Spirit to prepare, in the Spirit’s own mysterious ways, the next person for this daunting, complex, highly visible, and crucially important ministry in the Church. And so I began to pray, with no idea how long this praying would have to happen, nor with any inkling of whom I was praying for. But pray I did.

When Pope Benedict XVI suddenly resigned and the conclave began, I grew increasingly curious: Whose face would I see on that balcony? Would I appreciate the one I had been praying for? Would my prayers for his preparedness for this ministry be answered?

When Pope Francis finally appeared on the balcony, and most especially when he bowed his head to ask for the peoples’ prayers, I had my answer. As I stretched out my hands in prayer toward the TV screen on which I was following the happenings at St. Peter’s, I gave thanks to God for this Pope. I have prayed for Pope Francis ever since. He has taught me that I am a part of the Papal ministry in the life of the Church.

Bruce Morrill SJ:

Bruce Morrill preachingFrom the day of his election and initial pastoral presence on that balcony, Pope Francis has been a source of encouragement to me in multiple, mutually influential ways. His humble, compassionate pastoral practice, coupled with the content of his two apostolic exhortations and one encyclical, have altogether supported and challenged my personal contemplation, pastoral action, and professorial priorities.

Indeed, last year one of the initiatives that grew out of my annual eight-day silent retreat was to use the resources of my endowed chair to put on a semester-long series of events related to  “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home. “ In response to Francis’s appeal to all people of good will, I conceived plans to use resources in my endowed chair to engage a wide swath of professors and others across Vanderbilt University’s highly diverse campus.

To my amazement, within the first week of the new academic year came a call for grant proposals to participate in a University-wide yearlong engagement with climate change. I could not but gratefully marvel at the Spirit’s movement in all this. I did get a grant and participated in a yearlong interdisciplinary faculty seminar in addition to executing three events of my own – a panel, a three-day retreat, and a two-day symposium.

About my preaching: I am discovering a new quality of freedom both to continue and grow the prophetic (lovingly challenging, critical) content, as well as to craft delivery through suggestive images, questions, and appeals to the wisdom within the assembly. The  “principle of mercy “ (to invoke Jon Sobrino’s term) is affirmed and goaded on within me in the process from week to week, including my interactions with colleagues, students, spiritual directees, prisoners, and others who populate my life in Nashville. This cannot but make me a better theologian and professor.

One closing example: In crafting a new course for this coming fall,  “Theologies of Salvation “ (to be taught in a local prison—twelve inmates and twelve Vanderbilt Divinity students), I knew I had to include a  “mercy dimension. “ One practical way assuring this: adopting Jon Sobrino’s No Salvation Outside the Poor among the required readings.

Timothy Gabrielli:

Timothy GabruielliWhen the white smoke went up, I was sitting at the bar of the restaurant where I was employed as a waiter, writing my dissertation. I rushed out, picked up my daughters from the babysitter and got home before Bergoglio appeared at St. Peter’s. My eldest was nearly 5 at the time and I remember her being transfixed as we heard  “Franciscum, “ and as the new pope asked us to pray for him. She continues to pray for him!

I remember speaking with a close friend shortly thereafter and we agreed that this election was profound for a Church still reeling from the abuse scandal and the newer  “Vatileaks” crisis. When I returned to that restaurant for my shift a couple of days later, a cook – who had hung a holy card of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini over her prep station – said to me, with tears in her eyes,  “this is bringing me back to the Church.”

I teach at a Catholic university where fewer than 50% of the students check the box  “Catholic.” Presenting them with magisterial texts that break with their presuppositions gets them thinking outside of their stereotypes about the Church. This is the case for Quadragesimo Anno and St. JP II’s  “Address to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences.”

It has been delightful to discuss Pope Francis in the classroom. His speeches and letters challenge many stereotypes, but more importantly he is a profound witness to the lived faith and the students love him. He reminds them of Jesus. Because of that, he is able to challenge those who see the Church as closed in on itself while at the same time challenging those committed Catholics who tend to see migration and climate change as non-essential Catholic issues. This is a real boon in the classroom.

Gabriel Pavarnik OP:

Gabriel PiavarnikFour years ago, I was walking on a treadmill as part of a weight loss and fitness program at Duke University when the election of Pope Francis was announced on the news. As the newscaster finally uttered his name, I nearly fell off the treadmill. Men and women who had gathered around the television monitors and who knew that I was a priest all looked to me and said,  “What does this mean? “ I was speechless at first and then, sweaty and disoriented, I finally muttered,  “It means everything. This is unprecedented. “

As someone who works with college-aged students every day – students who are looking for meaning and purpose in their lives – I know that the leadership and ministry of Pope Francis in these last four years have given them (and dare I say, me) conviction about the gospel. In my ministry as the Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Providence College he has reminded me again and again of how embarrassingly simple living the gospel is – we often complicate it by our own rationalizations, fears, and insecurities. Love each other; forgive each other; walk with each other. It really is that simple. I have found myself in these last four years repeating those mantras over and over–in my preaching, in my teaching, and in my counseling: love, forgive, walk with each other.

We have enough in our world that makes our lives complicated, confusing, and stressful, but the gospel is not one of them. It really is that simple. When we realize that, we can step off the treadmills of our own lives that too often leave us disoriented and exhausted. Pope Francis reminds me day in and day out to step off into something new – a simple gospel message to love, to forgive, and to walk with each other.


  1. I was at a parish staff lunch mtg listening to the election news. Two young priests and I both jumped up and down laughing, then became speechless realizing that a humble Argentinian Jesuit – who chose the name Francis – was now Pope. We all said, “What does this mean?” And we all answered, “The Holy Spirit is at work.”

    So many barriers have come down – mostly, the barrier that the Catholic Church cares more for rules than for the Body of Christ. I have been renewed in ministry work. I have been reminded of God’s sense of humor and love of people. I have witnessed cradle Catholics finally understanding their faith and wanting to learn more. And I have seen numerous return to Full Communion.
    My favorite moment was at an interfaith nonprofit board meeting where I shared Pope Francis’s daily reflection for opening prayer. An Anglican member said, “I love Pope Francis. I feel like he’s my Pope, too.” And I realized how much he truly is her Pope and mine.

  2. I was teaching a grad class, “Monastic Liturgy.” When the smoke went up, it was impossible for me to continue teaching, and I just projected streamed TV coverage on the screen and we all watched.

    I thought I had read everything possible online about the papabili. We had run a series at Pray Tell about the liturgical views of some of the top candidates. But when the name was announced, I drew a blank. Much to my embarrassment, I had completely forgotten about this Bergoglio who came in second in 2005, and I had also missed him in the pre-conclave press coverage.

    And he just stood there in the loggia for a long time, barely moving. Oh no, I thought, what uninteresting old man did they find this time? Smile, I wanted to shout at him. Wave your hands, or do something, I thought nervously. Remember how JPII commanded the moment, played the crowd, and soaked in their jubilation? (I later saw Francis’s demeanor as one of inner peace, and humility that didn’t call attention to himself.)

    I’m not the most visual person, and it entirely escaped me that he wasn’t dressed like a pope. David Wesson, then an undergrad freshman but now a grad student and my Pray Tell assistant, sent me a frantic, excited email about simars and fascia and other words I didn’t know. I started to sense that something was up.

    Then I read two things. First, the ultraconservative, Vatican II-rejecting website Rorate Coeli wrote, “Of all the unthinkable candidates, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is perhaps the worst.” Second, an email arrived from Chris Grady, a progressive Catholic: “I’m pretty happy.”

    Now I was sure that something was up. The four years since that day have shown in abundance that a lot more was up than my wildest dreams could imagine.

  3. I was in my office watching events unfold. When the name was announced I thought at first, “guess they found an obscure Italian” to succeed Benedict. After becoming aware that he was an Argentinian Jesuit who would serve as Pope Francis, I was taken aback and blurted out something about how the Holy Spirit was truly up to something remarkable. When he asked the crowd and the viewers around the world to pray for him as he bowed slightly, I prayed and wept. Francis is the sixth pope of my lifetime. Pope John has been my favorite, but he is joined now by Francis. He has had a powerful impact on my life and ministry. I don’t ever remember making such frequent references to a Pope prior to his election. He is taking a church which had become smitten with self reference and self concern and is reviving it with the breath of the gospel. Thank you, Lord, for choosing such a humble successor of Peter. Watch over and guide him and prosper his servant leadership.

  4. My answer to that question: not a lot. I long ago detached a fair bit from the modern-era habit of making my Catholicism revolve around papal personality. That said, I might note three positive developments concerning this Pope:

    1. I do think this Pope is to be commended for his messy public statements, which I believe are partly a matter of his personality and partly a deliberate effort to scramble an unhealthy habit of Catholics in the broadcast media age to treat papal statements too much as oracular in nature. Traditionalist Catholics are now teaching this lesson – who would have thought that? (Well, for them that were paying attention to the fringe, it ought not be *too* surprising.)

    2. And I very much welcome how this Pope – given his experience in Ignatian discernment – sees how different souls have different inclinations, and how souls can run from one temptation only to fling themselves into the arms of another. It’s not that there’s no evil – this Pope is actually rather emphatic about evil – it’s that a safe check-the-box system that human beings naturally crave is illusory.

    3. What I love most is that this Pope does not seem ruddered by anxiety. A Catholicism ruddered by anxiety is not free to be ruddered by the Holy Spirit. Ideological Catholicism (whether of the traditionalist, progressive or another flavor) strongly tends to be ruddered by anxiety in some way. Anxiety does not come from God and will not keep us with God in a fruitful way. Pope Francis, again with his experience in discernment, seems to fundamentally grasp this and to shake people out of lapsing into anxiety-ruddered faith.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      KSL +1

      I’d also add that the systemic organization of the Roman Catholic church keeps me from getting on any papal bandwagon too much. Tomorrow Francis could die or resign, and the next month we could have John Paul III or Benedict XVII. Especially in the West/U.S. the system that has no concrete horizontal accountability coupled with our immersion in celebrity cult (even Francis’ detractors treat him as a celebrity – albeit one they don’t like) doesn’t really allow for changes that have a real future. Especially – as others have noted – institutions tend to resist change.

      All in all, I admire much of what Francis has done. Though in matters of gender/sexuality, he’s still very much a product of Latin American patriarchy. Most of all, I do admire how consistently he follows Jesus’ advice in Mt. 10:16b.

      1. @Alan Hommerding:

        More practical reform will begin with a serious reform of how bishops are chosen and promoted. Pope Francis is already doing the latter in practice – his appointments seem to have significantly reduced lateral see-hopping outside metropolitan provinces, and hewed more to working vertically within the provinces, though this shift is virtually uncommented on by anyone – it’s a major change in practice.

        Fortunately, significantly reforming how bishops are chosen away from the current model (whose roots are in the post-Napoleonic European settlement – especially after the establishment of the Kingdom of Belgium (a Catholic nation with a new Protestant ruling dynasty) in the 1830s) does not necessarily implicate much in the way of doctrinal innovation.

        When we see action on this point, we are more likely to see enduring reform. Absent that – don’t get your expectations up.

      2. @ Anthony Ruff, OSB:

        Oh no, I thought, what uninteresting old man did they find this time?


        Reminds me of this gem from another priest: “When [Benedict16] stepped out of the balcony in the Vatican, I wanted to jump off of my balcony.”

        @Alan Hommerding:

        Though in matters of gender/sexuality, he’s still very much a product of Latin American patriarchy.

        Funny you should think this, especially since Pope Francis’s views on the very matters of gender/sexuality probably sit on top of the things that drive the so-called “rad trads” absolutely up the wall.

        Personally, I see this line of thinking as a classic example of “Ideological Catholicism.”


        Obviously I’m in the bag for this pope. For all the things others have already said and more, I just love him, even as I fear becoming completely disillusioned (as it happened, quite sadly but inevitably, with JPII).

        @Karl Liam Saur:

        …don’t get your expectations up.

        gah, why must you always be so reasonable and rational.

      3. @Elisabeth Ahn:
        “”“When [Benedict16] stepped out of the balcony in the Vatican, I wanted to jump off of my balcony.””

        This reminds me of an operating phrase I use, which I normally express silently: “I need to put you out of my misery.”

  5. Pope Francis inspires. A bridge-builder, defender of the rights of the poor. May God bless Francis with health and stamina.

  6. Pope Francis has renewed my hope for the institutional church. He has greatly inspired my ministry and my daily life as a Catholic.

    Yet there are not a few people who feel his papacy is a disaster and cannot wait for his time to end, presumably so they can get back to business-as-usual. We will see whether his reforms take root.

    1. @Scott Pluff:
      They are doing more than just waiting. Some peculiar manic behavior out there, like the conversion of Pope Clement XIV to an anti-Jesuit shibboleth. Especially peculiar for, among others, a priest incardinated in a suburbicarian see of Rome.

  7. I recall having a particularly difficult day personally. I had planned to “marathon” the day between a morning staff meeting and an evening commitment at the parish, but I went home to lunch with my wife instead and take a nap. She suggested we check the news, and we did, just in time for the white smoke. I heard the Latin announcement of “Franciscus,” and I recalled the 1979 Walter Murphy novel. When I googled “Bergoglio,” my wife asked me if a Jesuit was good news or not. I said it was very good news, and I went down for a small nap. When I woke, my migraine was gone and I felt a sense of calm and confidence.

    Aside from what others have written above, I think that Pope Francis has muted the phenomenon of “I’m telling on you” of which we’ve seen so much since the late 80s. Regardless of justification, tattling is evidence of a seriously sinful inclination. If pastors and other ministers can operate in a more free climate to serve people, I think this is a good thing. It is enough.

    The Church has many serious issues to tackle on many fronts. There needs to be a degree of freedom to conduct a responsible discernment, both in policy and in individual pastoral matters. As for me, I’m going to enjoy a climate more conducive to discernment. That is certainly enough for me.

  8. Having come to life ecumenically during Pope John XXIII’s “surprise conclave” and its immediate impact, I recognized in Pope Francis a profound conviction that my (our) theological work has not been in vain these 50+’years. In a world of so much religious posturing and human self-deception, I take heart that the Spirit of Saint Francis persists, and that we can still pray John 17. Deo Gracias that Pope Francis moves among us ALL.

  9. As a freshman in high school I read Morris L West’s “The Shoes of the Fisherman” and always kept in the back of my mind what it would be like to have a Pope who slipped out, in cognito, to walk amidst the People of God. In 2005, I was professor of chemistry at Brigham Young University, one of a handful of Catholic faculty and staff. During the interim between the death of John Paul II and election of Benedict XVI many of my LDS colleagues asked me who I thought would be elected and who I wanted to be elected. I correctly predicted the winner, but told them of this Argentinian cardinal who rode the bus to work. I wondered what it would mean for the church to have a Pope who rode the bus to work. Had a balcony been available when the new Pope came out in 2005, I might have considered… It wasn’t until 2012-3 that I learned that my bus-riding cardinal had been in second place. Although others had written him off in 2013, I continued to pray for him. Patience is, indeed, a virtue. Francis is much of what I’d been hoping for, bringing new life to the vision of Vatican II. I don’t know that he really understands that women are more than the strawberries on the cake, but I believe him when he speaks of needing to be open to the surprises of the Holy Spirit. He’s given a wonderful new bishop to us in the Diocese of Salt Lake City, and installing bishops imbued with a pastoral sensibility may be the best gift to the church in the long run.

  10. It’s funny – I have no memory at all of where I was when Francis was elected; presumably in front of my computer at work. But I remember very clearly when I learned about Benedict’s election – I was in a grocery store parking lot and heard the announcement on the radio. I quickly drove to the parish and went into the parish office to gauge the staff’s reaction (about what one would expect from typical parish workers).

    But all of us thought we knew Benedict already, whereas none of us thought we knew Francis. And in a sense we were wrong on both counts: personally, my view of Benedict’s papacy is that it didn’t transpire as I had predicted, not least in matters liturgical, where I thought he would push a reform-of-the-reform agenda a good deal more strongly than he did. And even though most of us had never heard of Francis, it seems that we all knew him already, because he showed very quickly that he has a gift for saying and writing things that already are in our hearts.

    Francis has, in a sense, brought the church to where the church already is. He doesn’t dwell in some fictive idealized church. He dwells where people dwell.

  11. I love Pope Francis. He has helped me believe that there really is a place in the church for me after years of struggling with whether or not there was.

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