On October 4 the Church celebrates the saintly legacy of Francis of Assisi. Soon after his election, Pope Francis told journalists at an audience that this saint came to mind when choosing his unique papal name.
While the motivation in that inspiration was primarily the saint’s concern for the poor, another Franciscan trait has come to the fore in this papacy. Pope Francis appears to the world as one who lives out the famous quip attributed to the saint (though its actual source is unknown): “preach the Gospel always and if necessary, use words.”
Consider his inaugural words from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. After a simple and rather non-traditional greeting (“Good evening”), the new pope’s speech comprised almost entirely words of prayer and blessing. Those words were not, as some surmised, a substitute for his not knowing what else to say upon such a momentous occasion. Nor were the formularies used there merely words of traditional ecclesiastical rites.
No, the pope’s words were chosen purposefully. He prayed for his predecessor (an historical first). He called for prayer for one another and for the whole world. He asked for the crowd’s prayer for him, and the more than 100,000 strong responded with a deafening silence, creating an atmosphere that transcended the moment and astonished the assembled media hordes.
Novel as this was, it should not surprise us. Prayer is the primary language of Francis – the saint and the new pontiff. Prayerful words have become central to Pope Francis’ leadership of the Church on what he called its “journey” of charity, of fraternity, of trust. That is as it should be, for the Church is not merely a social or political or cultural institution. It is, first and foremost, a spiritual reality, for which its operating language is and must be liturgical. That Pope Francis’ first act was to pray with the people of his new diocese and ask them to pray for him, was not only appropriate, but telling.
Other words included in that first address “to the city and the world” (“Urbi et Orbe”) were perhaps less noteworthy but no less telling, because they offered an indication of the pope’s point of view on what faces the Church operating in the world today. To those who, in the conclave preceding his election, saw an internal-external division of focus between the “operational management” of the Curia and the “evangelical outreach” of the Church, Pope Francis made clear the priority when he noted that his vicar “will assist me … for the fruitful evangelization of this beautiful city.”
Preaching the Gospel is the pope’s primary job; doing will require many more words. Managing the minions who work under his authority represents a monumental challenge; shifting the Curia’s “Vatican-centric” focus to an emphasis on the “community of God’s people” is a daunting task. But that outreach remains the Church’s mission, and the pope’s chief concern. All else is secondary to this spiritual mission and is to be at the service of that evangelical preaching.
An approach that puts the spiritual first, that begins from words of prayer – that is how Pope Francis puts into practice the Franciscan dictum to preach always and use words when necessary. It’s a personal method that yields “A Big Heart Open to God,” as he reveals at the conclusion of his famous interview. It’s a mode of outreach that has jump-started this papacy, which continues to enjoy worldwide appeal. And it’s a worthy approach for carrying out the New Evangelization, a task for all of us who work in and for the Church.
Featured image from Reuters.com