The Bible and Catholic tradition have various images for describing the essence of the church. At the center of Pope Francis’s understanding of the church, corresponding to the approach of the Argentine theology of the people, stands the image of the church as the people of God (Evangelii gaudium, 111–34). It is firmly anchored in the biblical, patristic, and liturgical tradition. The Second Vatican Council renewed that understanding and presented the church as the messianic people of God (Lumen gentium, 9–12). Before long, however reservations grew loud among European theologians. One suspected a one-sided sociological, political, grassroots ecclesiology. It was different in Argentina. There the impulse of the council was eagerly seized upon and further developed into the Argentine form of liberation theology, into the theology of the people. Pope Francis imbues this ecclesiology of the people of God with concrete life.

That is not a new in itself, but is certainly a renewed view of the church, which should lead to a new style of ecclesial life. In Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis speaks of “pastoral care in conversion.” In his speech to the bishops of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, he said very clearly what he meant by such a conversion:

In reference to the conversion in pastoral care, I would like to remind you that “pastoral care” is nothing other than the exercise of the church’s motherhood. She gives birth, breastfeeds, lets grow, corrects, nourishes, leads by the hand…. There is need therefore for a church that is capable of rediscovering the womb of mercy. Without mercy it is scarcely possible today to penetrate into a world of the “injured,” who need understanding, forgiveness, and love.

Pope Francis’s style is correctly understood against the background of the theology of the people. This style is not good-natured folksiness or even cheap populism. Behind the pope’s pastoral style, which is close to the people, stands an entire theology, indeed a mysticism of the people. For him the church is far more than an organic and hierarchical institution. It is above all the people of God on their way to God, a pilgrim and evangelizing people that transcends every (however necessary) institutional expression.

Ultimately, the church is rooted in the secret of the most holy Trinity. Salvation is a work of God’s mercy. Out of sheer grace God draws us to himself through his Spirit and brings us together as his people. Thus, the church stands under the primacy of grace; the Lord always precedes us with his love and his initiative. Through his Spirit he draws us to himself, not as isolated individuals, but as his people. So the church must be the place of renegotiated mercy, where all can feel themselves welcomed and loved, where they experience pardon and can feel encouraged to live according to the good life of the Gospel.

On the basis of his theology of the people of God, Pope Francis is averse to every form of clericalism. “Laypeople are, put simply, the vast majority of the people of God. The minority—ordained ministers—are at their service” (EG, 102). The shepherds should not feel that they are fine, genteel lords, but rather should take on the smell of the sheep. Francis wants the participation of the entire people of God in the life of the church—women as well as men, laypeople as well as clerics, young and old. On the basis of baptism and confirmation, all are missionary disciples; they should be included in decisions. Lay ministries ought not be restricted to intra-ecclesial tasks; they are supposed to have an impact on advancing Christian values in the social, political, and economic world and should be engaged in applying the gospel to the transformation of society. The education of the laity and the evangelization of the professional and intellectual life pose, therefore, a significant pastoral challenge.

The topic of women is especially important to the pope; he devotes two sections to them in Evangelii gaudium (103–4) John XXIII counted the participation of women in public life and consciousness-raising concerning their human dignity among the signs of the times. Pope Francis recognizes that women make an indispensable contribution to society and he joyfully notes how many women exercise pastoral responsibility in the church, together with priests. “But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the church. Because ‘the feminine genius is indispensable in all forms of expressions of the life of society’” (EG, 103). All the same, the reservation of the priesthood to men, as a sign of Christ, the bridegroom who offers himself in the Eucharist, is not open to discussion. Yet in the case of sacramental power, we are moving on the plane of function and not of dignity or superiority. “Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops.”

For Pope Francis that is not a defensive argument. Rather, he sees in it “a great challenge for pastors and theologians”; it is a matter of recognizing more fully “what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the church’s life” (EG, 104). There are, in fact, many influential positions in the church, including the Roman Curia, that do not require ordination and are open to women, where women could introduce their specific talents for the well-being of the church and could break up an all too one-sided clerical atmosphere simply through their presence and their collaboration.

Young people are also important to the pope—one might say, as a matter of course. In his welcoming address at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro on July 25, 2013, he said:

I have come as well to be confirmed by the enthusiasm of your faith. You know that in the life of a bishop there are many problems that need to be resolved. And with these problems and difficulties, a bishop’s faith can grow sad. How horrible is a sad bishop! How bad is that! So that my faith might not be sad, I came here to be filled with your contagious enthusiasm!

Pope Francis knows about the difficulties of young people today and the difficulties of youth ministry (EG, 105–6). But he also knows that “young people call us to renewed and expansive hope, for they represent new directions for humanity and open us up to the future, lest we cling to a nostalgia for structures and customs which are no longer life-giving in today’s world” (EG, 108).

The pope names the theological foundation of the significance of the laity’s witness in the church. He refers to the teaching of the sensus fidei, the spiritual sense for what is a matter of faith and living the life of faith. The doctrine of sensus fidei, which is imparted to every Christian through the Holy Spirit in baptism, is very well established in the biblical and theological tradition, but has often been neglected. John Henry Newman showcased it in a renewed way in his famous essay “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” and Vatican II renewed it again. It holds that the people of God as a whole cannot err in matters of belief (Lumen gentium, 12; Evangelii gaudium, 119, 139, 198).

Unfortunately, that teaching was neglected after the council. There was a fear that it would be misused by dissenting groups inside the church. Pope Francis doesn’t share those fears. He highlights the doctrine of the sensus fidei and from it concludes that the church must keep its ear to the people. He speaks of the laity’s instinct for finding new ways of evangelization and he argues, therefore, in favor of making provisions for their voices to be heard and for pastoral dialogue with them.

Pope Francis wants a magisterium that listens. He shows how serious he is in Evangelii gaudium. In this apostolic exhortation, he cites not only statements from the Roman magisterium, but often he also cites documents from episcopal conferences from around the world. Popular piety is especially important to him. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, a theological source and is, so to speak, the mother tongue of the faith. In their 2007 Aparecida document, the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean speak of the “people’s mysticism”—Pope Francis cites the text in Evangelii gaudium (124, 237).

That does not mean that the church creates out of itself the truth and its power. On the contrary, as the itinerant people of God, the church does not live out of its own resources, but rather from listening to the word of God and from the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. The pope devotes the entire, lengthy third chapter of Evangelii gaudium to living on the basis of the proclaimed word of God.

All evangelization is based on that word, listened to, meditated upon, lived, celebrated, and witnessed to…. The church does not evangelize unless she constantly lets herself be evangelized. It is indispensable that the word of God be ever more fully at the heart of every ecclesial activity. God’s word, listened to and celebrated, above all in the Eucharist, nourishes and inwardly strengthens Christians, enabling them to offer an authentic witness to the Gospel in daily life…. The preaching of the word, living and effective, prepares for the reception of the sacrament, and in the sacrament that word attains its maximum efficacy. (EG, 174)

With respect to the sacraments, the church is a merciful mother with an open heart for all. The sacraments are medicine and nourishment for the weak; they are not only for the perfect, according to the pope. The church should be an open house with open doors. Francis seems to prefer the image of the church as a merciful mother, an image that was dear to the martyr-bishop Cyprian in his dispute with Novatian, in contrast to Novatian’s image of the church as a pure and holy virgin. Against the rigorism of Novatian, Cyprian supported the cause of clemency and mercy for those Christians who had become weak during persecution (lapsi). Today Pope Francis says that he prefers a church that is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church remaining shuttered within its structures, while outside a starving multitude waits.

With these and many other statements in the pope’s daily homilies, it appears that the pope has laid the groundwork for allowing Christians in irregular situations, such as divorced and remarried individuals, after examination of their respective situations, to the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist. The pope has responded that he was not thinking of such concrete situations when he made his general statement in Evangelii gaudium. Until there is a decision about this pastorally pressing yet still contentious question, he wants, in the exercise of his office of unity, first to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches (see Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29, etc.) and then decide.

Contrary to many misrepresentations, in my talk before the consistory of cardinals in 2013, though I did touch on that question, I intentionally left it open. I expressly referred to the decision of the synod in communion with the pope. “Remaining in the truth” is for me, as for all the theologians who took part in the discussion, a matter of course. The question that awaits an answer, however, is: What does truth mean in the sense of the biblical truth of divine faithfulness (emet, in Hebrew) in a concrete situation. As many recent exegetical investigations show, this issue cannot be resolved merely by quoting the words of Jesus (Mark 10:2–12 and parallels), which were already transmitted differently in the New Testament. Even if the question under consideration is not the only—or even the central—question of the family today, it has nonetheless become for many Christians the test of the viability of the new pastoral style. Therefore, it is to be hoped that in keeping with the old conciliar tradition, after all have been heard, a great consensus about it can be achieved so that, unified, we can turn all the more to the fundamental questions in the present crisis of the family.

For that reason it would be wrong to stay fixated on internal ecclesial problems and on what is often characterized as “hot potatoes.” Pope Francis is thinking beyond the church’s inner space. During the preconclave period, then-Cardinal Bergoglio pointed out that the church should not be focused on itself; it ought not be a church that is narcissistically in love with itself, that revolves around itself. A self-involved human being is a sick human being; a self-involved church is a sick church (EG, 43). Francis wants out of the stale air of a church that is self-involved—suffering from its own condition, bemoaning or celebrating itself. For him the church is an open house, a father’s house, in which there is a place for everyone with their difficulties. Therefore, he warns about a fundamentalism as well as about a one-sided sacramentalization of ecclesial life.

Pope Francis’s paradigm for the church is mission, a pastoral ministry that is not only preservative but decidedly missionary, a church that is permanently in a state of mission. That does not mean proselytism. The church grows not by proselytizing, but by attracting (EG, 14). As the pope repeatedly says, it is a matter of being a church that goes to the peripheries. That means not only the bleak peripheries of megalopolises, but also the peripheries of human existence.

God is a God of the journey, who has patiently traveled a long path with us in the history of salvation. The church fathers spoke of God’s patience and forbearance, of his pedagogy and economy. As we have seen, the motif of a journey or path is important for Francis. For him faith is not a fixed standpoint, but rather a path on which every person, as well as the church as a whole, is on the way. The church’s task is to accompany people wisely, patiently, and mercifully on this path, this process of growth. Francis quotes Blessed Peter Faber, for whom he has special esteem: “Time is God’s messenger” (EG, 169-73). The concluding document of the extraordinary synod of 2014 adopted this understanding of a pastoral ministry that meets people where they are and accompanies them.

That said, we touch upon the deepest—I would say the mystical—dimension of Pope Francis’s ecclesiology. He wants to encounter Christ—indeed, to touch Christ—in the poor (EG, 270). The church is the body of Christ; therefore, we touch the wounds of Christ in the wounds of the others. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). That is a mystical point of view. It calls to mind Francis of Assisi who, at the beginning of his spiritual journey, embraced a leper; and it recalls Mother Teresa’s experience of her calling, when she carried a dying person into her cloister and, in the process, had the experience of carrying Christ in her arms, like a monstrance. Last year In Albania, Mother Teresa’s native land, Francis spoke movingly of a church that can administer solace because it too has experienced solace.

At this point the paradigm shift in method, corresponding to the model of the Good Samaritan, becomes concrete. The Samaritan descends into the dust and dirt of the street, touches and binds up the wounds of the one fallen among robbers, and also pays for his care. Francis speaks of a mysticism of coexistence and encounter, of embracing and supporting one another, of participating in a caravan of solidarity, in a sacred pilgrimage; he speaks of a mystical and contemplative fraternity, which “knows how to see the sacred grandeur of our neighbor, of finding God in every human being” (EG, 92). Or—Johann Baptist Metz put it—this is not a mysticism of closed eyes, but rather a mysticism of open eyes, which becomes a mysticism of helping hands.

For Pope Francis, the guiding star of evangelization and of this kind of pastoral care is Mary, Jesus’s mother—and our mother. Mary is the subject of Evangelii gaudium’s closing chapter. That has become a tradition in the encyclicals of the past few popes. For a pope who comes from Latin America and is devoted to popular piety, such a chapter is completely natural. Guadalupe in Mexico, Aparecida in Brazil, and Luchan in Argentina are all Marian pilgrimage sites of national and continental significance. We should not arrogantly dismiss their mention as a tribute to the ancestry and culture of the pope, but rather acknowledge the religious power—including the power of the new evangelization—that emanated and still emanates from these centers in the history of the Latin American continent. We should take seriously the fact that without Mary we can never entirely understand the spirit of the new evangelization and can never entirely understand the church as well. Without Mary the church would lack a feminine image. Mary accompanies God’s people on the path of evangelization, even in periods of darkness, which include many tribulations. She is the model and advocate of evangelization. Thus, there is a Marian style in the missionary activity of the church; it is a revolution of tenderness and love.


This article was adapted from Cardinal Walter Kasper's new book Pope Francis’s Revolution of Tenderness and Love (Paulist Press).

Published in the April 10, 2015 issue: 

Cardinal Walter Kasper is president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. 

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