Lest progressives become too elated and conservatives too worried, we can be assured that with Pope Francis there is no change in content, only a change in approach. The new pope clearly wants to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ with a new immediacy, a fresh relevancy and an urgent compassion. He wants to take the gospel of Jesus Christ out into the streets, the clinics, the prisons, the homes and the lives of ordinary people. So he says, “Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”
Finally–what about the things most people want to talk about? Abortion, homosexuality and contraception? Pope Francis refers to a motto that helped Bl. Pope John XXIII govern the church, “‘See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.” Pope Francis is clear about the church’s teachings on these matters and believes that he, as chief pastor, does not need to issue further condemnations. His concern in each case is for the forgiveness and reconciliation of each individual.
Every pope is a man of his own time and place, and in that way every pope brings unique gifts to the office of the papacy, but he also brings distinct limitations. Pope John Paul II was both empowered and limited by his Polish background. Benedict XVI was a brilliant European theologian and man of the church, but he was also limited in his experience and perspective.
While Francis’ compassionate and pastoral approach is likable, there are also some problems ahead. The problem with Francis’ pastoral approach is that a person cannot receive forgiveness unless he first knows what needs forgiving, and one cannot know what’s wrong without preaching first about sin and its consequences. Pope Francis speaks as a pastor who has lived and worked his whole life in a Catholic culture where the majority of people understand the basic foundations of a Christian worldview along with the fundamentals of Christian morality. When he speaks of priests going out into the streets and homes of the people he is thinking of a people who know what a priest is, who know the core of the Christian message and who do not reject it.
While his message is vital and real for those living in a Catholic culture, those who live and work in the post-Christian culture of Europe or Protestant America or in hostile Islamic dominated countries will need to supplement Francis’ gentle approach with an evangelistic effort that is more explicit and robust.
Fr Dwight Longenecker is pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Check out his blog, check out his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com