Pope speaks to world crying out for mercy

Pope Francis understands the art of communication and the golden rule that what is heard really is the message, writes Michael Kelly

Pope Francis is fast emerging as parish priest of the world – and the world appears to be lapping it up. Since his election just over six months ago, Francis has won almost universal approval – both within and outside the Church. It’s unusual in a world that often appears jaded by the voice of faith and talk of transcendence. But the Argentine Pope has an extraordinary ability to penetrate the depths with simple words and gestures. He is causing many people who have long-since walked away from the Church to look again. As a priest-friend put it this week, the Pope “is really inviting us to a more intense trust in the mercy of God in a world that is crying out for His authentic message”.



It’s a message that may well find a resonance in a country like Ireland where many people describe themselves as Catholics but no longer attend Mass regularly. Despite some of the overblown hype and skewed reporting, the Pope has certainly not given a signal that the Church is about to take a dramatic lurch to the left: on the contrary, many of his pronouncements on controversial issues like women’s ordination and sexuality mirror those of his immediate predecessors. But, Pope Francis understands the art of communication and the golden rule that what is heard really is the message. And too often what people have been hearing from the Church is a list of negatives: The Church is against this, of the Vatican opposes that. The Pope is calling Catholics to concentrate a bit more on what the Church is for and less about what it is against. Principally, for Francis, this is about transforming the Church from a place of ideology to a Church where people experience spirituality and the deep-seated need for transcendence is met. In so doing, he is reaching out to what might be described as the Catholic middle ground. He is moving away from a model of the Church that is ‘fewer and truer’ to one where all Catholics can find a home.


Seismic shift

The interview in which the Pope excoriates some elements in the Church for being ‘obsessed’ with abortion and gay marriage shows that Francis wants the hierarchy to find a different way of being the Church. It would be wrong to think that he is signalling a seismic shift where the Catholic Church would suddenly start endorsing gay marriage or would approve of abortion. Francis makes it clear in the interview that he is a loyal son of the Church and, as such, stands fully behind Church’s teaching.


It’s hardly a surprise that the Pope is a Catholic, but he is a Catholic who wants the Church to emphasise more the message of mercy and love. As one theologian put it to me: “It’s about telling people what God can do for them, rather than what they have to do for God.”


Predictably, some elements in the Church have been spinning parts of the interview to give the impression that the Pope is endorsing their particular vision: but what Francis is shifting is emphasis rather than doctrine. He is trying to steer a middle ground between those who push a heartless form of Catholicism based on rigid rules and regulations and those who would adopt an all-you-need-is-love approach. Anyone, whatever vision of the Church they bring to the debate, who thinks Pope Francis has come to confirm them in their preconceptions will be upset by this remarkable Pope.


The Pope is trying to reach out beyond the ‘Churched’ to those who have long since drifted away from the practice of their faith or even those who are hostile towards Catholicism.


He is likely to get short shrift from those who are fundamentally opposed to the Church, but he may well get a warm reception from lapsed Catholics causing them to look again. This is why he says the Church needs to find a new balance between upholding rules and demonstrating mercy. Otherwise, he warns, “even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards”. It’s a stark warning that rings true in a country like Ireland where the Church’s moral authority has crumbled as a result of revelations of the cover-up of clerical abuse.



The reason that the Catholic Church has survived for 2,000 years is because of an ability at moments in history for the Church to re-create and re-present itself. Catholicism survived the Dark Ages by preserving Christian tradition in the monasteries. The Church survived the Reformation by engaging in a massive programme of reform in the 16th Century. We may be witnessing one such moment when a one form of Catholicism dies and another is birthed.


Pope Francis’ simple style and evident humility have won him widespread approval. The challenge for bishops and priests in parishes across Ireland will be to put flesh on the bones of what the Pope is saying and make real Francis’ pledge that the Church will be more open to meeting people with mercy and love. They will need to reassure people that the form of Catholicism Francis criticises, the Church that has “locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules” is also capable of openness and being a place
of welcome for the many rather than a museum for the saintly few.