Francis Called the “Mercy” Pope


John L. Allen Jr. speak in the Chapel of Mercy Feb. 19.

John L. Allen Jr. speak in the Chapel of Mercy Feb. 19.

Well, it was music to our ears. To a mostly full Chapel of Mercy, journalist John L. Allen Jr. had this to say about Pope Francis: “My prediction is in the long run, Francis will be known as the pope of mercy.”

I don’t suppose it’s any wonder that the Mount Mercy crowd ate it up. Allen, an associate editor for the “Boston Globe” who writes for the web site “Crux” which covers the Catholic Church, talked about what he called the “radical” leadership style of Pope Francis Feb. 19 at Mount Mercy University’s Chapel of Mercy. The presentation was based on his book “Against the Tide: The Radical Leadership of Pope Francis.” I got a copy at a reception for Allen, and the slim volume seems readable and interesting—I’m looking forward to it. In the meantime, the speech Allen gave was also quite informative.

By “radical,” Allen made clear he was not talking about a political identification. Pope Francis enjoys not being pinned down politically, and tweaks the conventions of both left and right—in fact, Allen said he suspects Francis will make both American political parties uncomfortable when he soon becomes the first pope to address Congress.

In the pope’s case, Allen said radical leadership means two things:

First, the pope is bold. He is willing to make changes whose impact even he can’t be sure of. Allen noted that when the pope recently added more cardinals to the church, most of them came from around the world, rather than from Rome or Europe. He noted that the tiny nation of Tonga, which as a total population about equal to Cedar Rapids, now has a cardinal.

“Francis thinks that the top of the church should look more like the bottom of the church,” Allen said.

Second, the pope is radical in the sense that the word itself refers to the “root” of things. This second sense of radical leadership is what Allen spent the most time talking about, and includes three broad thrusts of Pope Francis:

  • Francis sees “leadership as service.”
  • Francis has a missionary vision for the church.
  • Francis sees mercy as the core of Christianity.

For instance, Allen said that Francis instructed the global community of papal ambassadors who help name local bishops to look for those potential bishops who are connected with the people—or, as Allen said Francis put it, shepherds who “carry the smell of their sheep.”

Allen had many other interesting insights into the current pope. He noted, for example, that Pope Benedict was cast as a media villain, the “Rottweiler of God.” But, Allen said, he personally observed Benedict for many years, and the previous pope was much more consistent with Pope Francis that the media image of the two men suggest. He notes that when Benedict became pope, he immediately behaved in a humble fashion, such as packing his own bags and personally thanking nuns who had helped cook for cardinals during the conclave that elected him—actions that Francis echoed when he was selected.

John L. Allen Jr. speaks with Bill Mulcahey, who retired last fall as director of campus ministry at MMU.

John L. Allen Jr. speaks with Bill Mulcahey, who retired last fall as director of campus ministry at MMU.

But, because Benedict already had a poor media image, his humility was not recognized. Allen noted that Francis deserves credit for many ongoing reforms in the church—but also that many of those reforms, such as more financial transparency and confronting the priest sexual abuse scandal—were continuations of initiatives that Benedict began.

Another tidbit Allen offered was to sum up the central messages of the three popes he has covered. First, he issued the caveat that these complex leaders could not be reduced to a simple phrase, and then he proceeded to do exactly that. For John Paul II, the pope who helped bring down Communism in Eastern Europe, the phrase was “be not afraid.” For Benedict the 16th, the central phrase was “reason and faith,” the concept that neither reason nor faith functioned well without being balanced by the other. For Francis, Allen said the central theme has been “the church needs to get out of the sanctuary and into the streets.”

“He (Francis) thinks of himself as the missionary-in-chief of the church,” Allen said.

Allen also noted that he thought the humility and positive image of Francis are genuine and reflect who he is, but are also the result of an intense strategic mind at work. While nothing the pope does or says is easy to predict, Allen said it’s also true that nothing is unplanned.

“Never forget this: Beneath his humble exterior is the mind of a brilliant Jesuit politician,” Allen said of Pope Francis.

John L. Allen Jr. signs a copy of  his book on the leadership of Pope Francis for an MMU student.

John L. Allen Jr. signs a copy of his book on the leadership of Pope Francis for an MMU student.

Well, it seems that the Francis effect was in full flower at Mount Mercy. Whatever else you can say about this pontiff, he certainly has made the church far more lively, and that energy could be sensed in the almost-full chapel.

And, sometimes, Francis can even spark lame humor. At the end of this speech, Allen warned his attentive and appreciative audience that they had better ask questions, or he would regale them with pope jokes like this one: “Pope Francis walks into a bar with a frog on his shoulder. The bartender looks up and says, ‘where did you get that?’ The frog answers, ‘Buenos Aires.’”

It’s probably good that questions followed.

A few more of my photos from Facebook.

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