A Jesuit and a Latin American, Bergoglio is the pontiff the times call for, says Archbishop Pierre.
Pope Francis’ background as both a Jesuit and a South American are important to understanding his papacy, his representative to the United States said in a public forum this week.
On the one hand, Pope Francis has amplified a key theme from an important conference of Latin American bishops and applied its lessons to the Church throughout the world, said Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.
On the other, his training as a Jesuit has made him the kind of person who discerns difficult situations and is leading the Church through difficult times in a calm, considered attitude.
Archbishop Pierre offered his observations during a discussion with Fr. Matt Malone, S.J., editor in chief of America magazine, on the foundations of the papacy of Pope Francis. The event was held at the New York Athletic Club in Manhattan Thursday evening.
Archbishop Pierre said he believes Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as Pope was providential, as it came at a “moment of big change in the world.” The Argentinian cardinal had been prepared to confront that change, as he was the main drafter of the final document produced by a gathering of Latin American bishops at Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007. The major concern of the bishops during that gathering was in communicating the faith to a younger generation for whom the faith was no longer a given. Suddenly there was a breakdown in communication in society, something the nuncio attributes to various causes, including globalization, the media, and relativism.
“At the beginning of the conference [the bishops] said, ‘We don’t know how to transmit our values and our faith.’ Previously the culture was helping to facilitate the transmission of the faith,” Pierre said.
Bergoglio’s input was appreciated by his fellow bishops, who wanted to know “How can we evangelize in this new context?”
Pierre became nuncio to Mexico just after the Aparecida document had been issued.
“The Mexican bishops were telling me, ‘We have someone in our midst who not only helps us think about our situation but is writing about it as well,’” he recalled.
“This is the key of Pope Francis,” the nuncio said. “He invites us to become aware that we’re living in a new situation.”
Bergoglio has brought that understanding to a global level, and what is needed in response is a new way of thinking about the Church, one that sees the Church primarily as a place where a person has an encounter with Jesus Christ.
In this, the new Pope has a continuity with his predecessor, Pierre maintained. “There’s a beautiful sentence at the beginning of [Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical] Caritas in Veritate: ‘Faith is not an ideology but an encounter with a person, an event that opens to us a new life, gives us a new freedom.’ This sentence has been repeated by Pope Francis in Evangelium Gaudium.”
At the same time, the Pope’s Jesuit background has given him an effective tool to lead during a time of turmoil.
“In this time when we need a lot of discernment, Pope Francis is a man who is able to discern,” Pierre said. “That is a capacity to analyze the situation in the light of Christ and the Spirit. The Jesuits have a wonderful instrument for discernment: the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. The Jesuit Bergoglio, as a good Jesuit, has been educated in life with the Exercises but he has also been a master of the Exercises. He applies them now as a pope. Some people told me he’s like a spiritual director of humanity. This is why so many people go see him—just to have a kind of light in this difficult time. We really need this capacity of discernment. There is no discernment if is there is no listening to the spirit.”
But this pope is a man of prayer, the nuncio attested. “I accompanied him for five days [on the Pope’s visit to] Mexico,” the French-born nuncio said. “I saw that. I saw the presence. The man is present to the reality. He’s discerning all the time. He’s in touch with reality. He has not the idea already made before he sees the things.”
When Bergoglio was elected in 2013, a prominent Mexican bishop told Pierre to keep an eye out, because, in the words of the bishop, “He knows exactly where to go.”
“He wants to respond to the challenges of the times by being Church, where it is possible to have a personal encounter with Jesus,” Pierre told the New York gathering.
Asked what might be next in the process of reorienting the pastoral priorities of the Church, Pierre said that the invitation to a personal conversion is important.
“In Evangelium Gaudium, he gives a lot of attention to pastoral conversion so that the Church may become a instrument of encounter with Christ and personal conversion,” he said. “His mission is to help the Church be more adaptive to her mission, not just to be adapted to the times, a kind of modernization of the Church.”
As a timely example, Pierre pointed to the pope’s reform of the Synod of Bishops, which had just been issued that day. “He wants a Church that is more collegial, not just a pure democracy, but the participation of all members of the Church.”
In addition, the pope has been speaking out against clericalism, which Pierre defined as a tendency for Church leaders to “isolate themselves from God’s people.”
“Priests, bishops, and deacons should be at the service of the Church,” he said. “It requires a change of attitude, both in the priests and the people. At times people might say, ‘I am helping my parish priest.’ No, you are not helping your parish priest, the parish priest is helping you.”
This call to train ourselves to think in a new way is part of what Pope Francis has been saying from the beginning of his pontificate: the Church should go outside of herself, not be inward looking.
“These are key words” of Pope Francis, the nuncio said. “We should transform them into our way of thinking.”