Pope Francis on his predecessors

The Pontiff greatly admires the new saints

With worldwide focus on the two new Pope-saints this week, it’s interesting to note how Pope Francis sees them. He certainly admires their innovation, courage and missionary drive. We can see this, for instance, in his Letter, The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium) where he refers to both Popes John XIII and John Paul II.  

Francis admires John XXIII’s glass-is-half-full-not-half-empty approach to life. He quotes the famous line in the Italian Pope’s opening talk at the Second Vatican Council about the prophets of doom: “At times we have to listen, much to our regret, to the voices of people who, though burning with zeal, lack a sense of discretion and measure. In this modern age they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin… We feel that we must disagree with those prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand…” John XXIII went on to speak rather about the providential hand of God to be discerned in the circumstances of life.

Not surprisingly, given he was bishop throughout John Paul II’s pontificate, Francis quotes the Polish Pope more often than John XXIII, and he does so especially in reference to the theme of mission. While he himself doesn’t intend to undertake many international trips, it’s clear that the missionary zeal that impelled John Paul to undertake 103 international journeys appeals to Francis.

He quotes John Paul saying, “we cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings”; we need to move “from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry”.

Francis repeatedly warns against the Church closing in on itself and so it’s no surprise he quotes from a talk to the bishops of Oceania where John Paul insisted: “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion”.


John Paul II and women in the Church

On several occasions, Pope Francis has said there needs to be a new theology and a new involvement of women in the decision-making processes of the Church.

One of Pope John Paulís significant contributions was his writings on women in connection with what he called the feminine genius and the Marian profile of the Church. Women who knew John Paul spoke of his attentiveness to the feminine and his ability to listen. Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare, recalled a conversation with the Polish Pope during a lunch he had invited her to. Reflecting on the place of movements and communities in the Church, John Paul explained his vision of the Church in terms of many inter-linking profiles such as the Petrine profile (the hierarchy), the Pauline profile (charisms, religious orders), the Johannine profile (contemplatives, spirituality), the Martha and Mary profile (charitable works) and others, but the fundamental profile that embraces all the others is the Marian profile.

Pope Francis has commented recently that we need to explore further the Church's Marian profile if we want to develop the theology of women in the Church.


John XXIII calling the Council

An Italian priest friend of mine met recently with the newly-created Cardinal Capovilla who was Pope John XXIII's secretary. Now aged 98 and still very lucid and active, he recalled for my friend the days leading up to John XXIII's decision to call the Second Vatican Council.

It seems the Pope mentioned the idea to his secretary but Capovilla argued against it, given the Pope's age. A few days passed and nothing further was mentioned. Then one evening after reciting the rosary with the rest of the papal household, John XXII brought up the topic again with Capovilla.

Basically he told his secretary that he realised that he both cared very much for the Pope but, at the same time, cared too little!

Very much, because, yes, Capovilla wanted to make sure the Pope wouldnít be taking on a hazardous project at his age with the consequent risk of damaging his reputation if it didnít work out.

He wanted to give the Pope good advice. But too little, because, as John XXII put it, "the trouble is that you're still not detached enough from yourself – you're still concerned with having a good reputation.

"Only when the ego has been trampled underfoot can one be fully and truly free."

The episode is a lesson in discernment.