John Allen Speaks on the Francis Papacy

by Margo Borders


On Wednesday, October 30, John Allen, Senior Correspondent at The National Catholic Reporter, presented a talk on Pope Francis as part of the Church in the 21st Century Center’s “Living Catholicism” series. Allen is the author of seven books on the Catholic Church and also serves as the senior Vatican analyst for CNN. He spoke about the “Francis Effect,” the three emerging pillars of Pope Francis’ papacy, and the public’s resistance and reaction to Pope Francis.


Allen began by speaking about Pope Francis’ popular appeal. He cited a Pew Forum poll about Pope Francis conducted six months into his papacy, which revealed that only four percent of American Catholics have an unfavorable view of the pope.

“There is a popular ferment elicited by the pope that is remarkable,” Allen said.


Allen cited Pope Francis’ personal simplicity, such as his taking the bus, deciding not to live in the papal apartments, and his simple black shoes. Allen said that the pope’s simplicity comes out of his personality and that his simplicity has affected many in Rome.


Pope Francis has made steps to redefine leadership in the Church. In his June 24 meeting with papal ambassadors who help to appoint bishops, he made his vision for simpler leadership in the Church clear. He intervenes when this standard is not met, which can be seen in his suspension of the Bishop of Limburg, who was spending extravagantly.


Allen was on Pope Francis’ flight from Rio de Janiero to Rome, where the pope gave an impromptu interview. Among the many things he said, the pope stated that he doesn’t think it is essential for him to talk frequently about controversial life issue because the Church position on these issues is well known. Allen commented that the pope is not about the surrender of these life issues but believes that other aspects of Catholic social teachings have not had enough emphasis.


Allen spoke about three different instances of the pope’s clear focus on Catholic social teaching: his trip to Lampedusa, his trip to the slums of Rio de Janeiro, and the day of fasting and prayer for Syria. In Lampedusa, the pope condemned the “globalization of indifference,” and in Rio de Janeiro, he said to the poorest of the poor that his message to them is that the Church will stand with them. Allen emphasized the importance of this statement, saying that on the pope’s watch, the Church will stand by these people.


By making these trips and reaching out to the poor and outcast, Allen said that the pope is “making the Church present to them in his own person,” and that by focusing on the issues of immigration, poverty, and war, he is implying his desire to lift the Church’s social gospel.


Allen also spoke about the pope’s focus on mercy as a core spiritual value. “Mercy” is the word most commonly used by Francis, and his motto in Latin literally translates to “by having mercy, by choosing him.” In his first Mass at St. Ann’s, the heart of his homily was that the strongest message of the Lord is mercy. He called the present moment a “kairos of mercy.”


Allen commented on the signature phrases of the last three popes, and speculated that Pope Francis’ phrase will be, “the Lord never tires of forgiving.” Allen said that as a minister of the Christian gospels, one has to convey God’s judgment and God’s mercy to the fallen world. Francis believes it is time for the world to hear and experience God’s mercy, which is fundamentally predicated on a desire for people to see the Church as merciful and on actually practicing the works of mercy.


Allen talked briefly about the resistance that Francis has seen in his papacy so far. Francis has the “older son” problem, in reference to the parable of the prodigal son. Francis has reached out the younger prodigal sons and daughters, but has left the older, more devout Catholics more on the edges of his ministry. Pro-life Catholics are concerned about the culture war, doctrinal Catholics are concerned about elements of the Church, as are liturgical traditionalists and political conservatives. Allen says that because Pope Francis is so politically astute and committed to the unity of the Church, he is aware of this ambivalence and will try to reach out to all Catholics in time. Allen compared Pope Francis’ attitude to the words of Pope John XXIII: “I have to be pope, both of those with their foot on the gas and those with their foot on the break.”


Allen called all Catholics to help Pope Francis’ mission by doing what we can. In a global media culture, Francis has absolutely changed the narrative about the Catholic Church. We are committed to evangelization, and Francis represents a unique key to evangelization. This is an opportunity to reintroduce the secular world to the Catholic message, and we shouldn’t let this come into internal Church rivalries. Allen emphasized that this is a missionary opportunity we should take advantage of, and we should let Pope Francis be an invitation to faith for the world.


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