Reflection: Francis, Four Years Later

James Sabak, OFM Features

In 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected the 266th successor of St. Peter. The new pope chose the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi. Four years later, a Franciscan priest reflects on the pontiff’s papacy thus far.

“Four” is an interesting number. There are four evangelists, four directions on the compass, four seasons in a cosmological year, four sides to a square, four freedoms – of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear (as FDR famously enumerated in his State of the Union Address in 1941)… you get the picture. So it is perhaps fitting to take a moment to reflect on the pontificate of Pope Francis during the month that celebrates the fourth anniversary of his election to the Holy See on March 13, 2013.

While it may seem a bit presumptuous of authors, such as Austen Ivereigh, to begin labeling Francis as “The Great Reformer” roughly two years into his pontificate, there is without a doubt a “new wind blowing” within the day-to-day life that is the Catholic tradition. Francis’s decision to appear on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica without the traditional vesture worn by a newly elected pope; deciding to preside at his first Mass of the Lord’s Supper as pope at a detention center, where he washed the feet of both men and women (two of whom were Muslim); his famous, “Who am I to judge?” response when asked about homosexuals and their relationship with and to the Church; his statements on the relationship between divorce and remarried Catholics and the larger Catholic Church, which supports a more pastoral and inviting perspective toward their reception of the sacraments and their place within the community of believers; and the concern he raises for the environment and care for creation in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, all suggest that Francis is a very different type of man to hold the honorific title of “pope” in recent memory.

Yet, there are many – not only from a less progressive or more right of center mindset – who see in Francis a conundrum and a perplexing confluence of positions and perspectives. Has Francis done enough at this point to begin meriting the title of “reformer” at all? Those who may lean “to the right” see in him an individual capable of dismantling centuries of hoary and sacrosanct precepts that appear to make Catholics, “Catholic!” Others, presumably on the left side of various spectra, want to Francis to take bolder and more deliberate steps to continue the aggiornamento of Pope John XXIII, opening more and more windows to newer and fresher ideas of what it means to be “Church” in the modern world.

Frustrations mount on both sides, especially when Pope Francis appears to be acting like the pope they expect him to be, and then moves in directions that confound and confuse these very same perceptions. Francis’s singularity and remarkable spontaneity in both speaking and interacting with people can be at the same time both endearing and shocking depending on who is the interpreter.

One thing is certain – it has been indeed a long time since a person (or character) like Francis has held the papal title. Eamon Duffy in his short but insightful work, “Ten Popes who Shook the World,” concludes that Pope Paul III, in convening the Council of Trent, allowed said Council to create a Catholicism that was “new, energetic, better-informed…[and] also much less fun.” Has Pope Francis made Catholicism “fun” again, or at least unpredictable?

Francis’s reception during his visit to the United States in September 2015 was anything but ordinary and staid, as may have characterized the visit of Benedict XVI in 2008. The cheer, “We love the pope!”, as his motorcade passed by those who lined the streets recaptured a kind of elation echoing that which greeted John Paul II in his first visit to America in October 1979. While it appears that the pope may be loved in the public square, one does have to wonder whether this love extends to neighbor, or even to Christ.

This is perhaps the deciding element in Francis’s papacy. As a pope who comports himself unlike John Paul did in the latter years of his pontificate, and as Benedict never seemed able, Francis brings both approachability and challenge not to the papacy, but also to what it means to be a believer in a world that does not know what to believe anymore.

What is more, taking the name “Francis” may mean much more than an approach to human life that engages the marginalized and impoverished. We Franciscans must also remember that while an individual of extraordinary inspiration, Francis never claimed to be an outstanding leader, even laying aside his leadership in 1220. Whether this helped or hindered the movement’s mission and progress may still be debated. We may wonder whether Pope Francis realizes this aspect of his patron. As pope, Francis acts in ways as impulsive and as astonishing as did Francis of Assisi, bringing to the Church and to the world both consternation and wonder. However, to be both an inspiration and a leader are two formidable and sometimes conflicting tasks.

The ultimate legacy of Pope Francis remains to be determined, but one thing is certain – to live as “another Francis” is to live attuned to the signs of the times, and to live conscious of the movement of God’s spirit within these times. For Pope Francis to respond with inspiration and leadership in both these areas may indeed breathe new life into the Christian tradition and into the world.

— Fr. Jim teaches theology at Providence, R.I., College. He holds a doctorate in sacramental and liturgical theology from The Catholic University of America in Washington.

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic – a holiday, holy day, or other seasonal theme – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at

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