One of the remarkable elements I have seen in the pope’s stories for the church’s future is the extent to which they are stories of inclusion, stories in direct contrast with the Catholic Church that chose him, a church that had for many years grown increasingly insular, hierarchical, and inward-looking. What’s more, Francis’ views on what is wrong with the organization he leads coincide precisely with his opinion of what is wrong with the world in general. To him, today’s world is above all else characterized by exclusion.
In his writing, the pope denounces at great length the “dictatorship” of a modern system dominated by the free market economics that increase inequality and perpetuate poverty. With his words, his stories, and his actions, Francis seems to want to put forth the church as an institution of inclusion, and even as a counterpoint to a world that is excluding a steadily growing number of its people.
In addition, this pope seems to want to speak out about our collective mission, not as Catholics per se, but as inhabitants of this planet, to make the world a more humane place. As he comments in his characteristically straightforward and folksy style, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
His vision is of a Church that reaches out to the frontier: Francis’ story for the future is of an increasingly pastoral church, where one’s most crucial work is to reach out to the poor and the sick on the front lines, in their environment. In this aspect as well, his vision represents a noteworthy departure from the past and a sharp contrast with his predecessor. As we have noted previously, Pope Francis is a Jesuit with a strong pastoral background, where Benedict was distant, scholarly theologian with a long history as a severe doctrinal enforcer.
Pope Francis’ story of service to the poor and disadvantaged is simply one that he has been practicing, modeling, and embodying through his whole papacy. It is also the story of how he has lived his entire life. He has truly been a servant leader, a man who has ventured out to meet the poorest of the poor in their own homes, coming not to preach but to listen to them, and even to wash their feet.
With both his words and his actions, Pope Francis underscores his story for the future, where the church becomes a problem solver in the field and a servant for the world’s disadvantaged, not an isolated and inwardly-focused custodian of doctrine and ceremony.
As such, he often speaks of his admiration for religious workers who serve the poor from the front lines, for example the sisters living in hospitals. “They live on the frontier”, he exclaims. In explaining the importance he sees in living on the frontier, he tells personal stories that demonstrate that he knows the work of these sisters from having seen it at close range.
In fact, Pope Francis believes that one of these religious workers—one of those who understand the world from the field rather than from a laboratory—may have saved his own life years ago: “I am alive because of one of them. When I went through my lung disease at the hospital, the doctor gave me penicillin and streptomycin in certain doses. The sister who was on duty tripled my doses because she was daringly astute; she knew what to do because she was with ill people all day. The doctor, who really was a good one, lived in his laboratory; the sister lived on the frontier and was in dialogue with it every day. Domesticating the frontier means just talking from a remote location, locking yourself up in a laboratory. Laboratories are useful, but reflection for us must always start from experience.”
Finally, the pope’s future story is one of an inclusive church that embraces a wide range of views, one that can see beyond the variations of individual opinion and learn to move forward in a spirit of fellowship and harmony: “We must walk together: the people, the bishops and the pope…We must walk united with our differences: there is no other way to become one. This is the way of Jesus.”