On Sunday, March 13, we celebrated the third anniversary of the election of Pope Francis. I can still vividly remember that Wednesday afternoon three years ago when I was glued to the television set, watching the live EWTN broadcast of the second day of the conclave, when white smoke suddenly began pouring from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. It was a cold, rainy evening in Rome. After a brief time of expectant waiting and wondering, it was announced that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been elected the 265th Successor of Saint Peter and had taken the name Francis. Unfamiliar with the name, I scrambled upstairs to my computer and checked my list of papabili (likely papal candidates) in an article I had just published speculating on who the successor to Benedict XVI might be. I found Cardinal Bergoglio at number 20 on my list of thirty-three papal candidates. I quickly revisited my source article on Wikipedia and found that he was from Argentina. That was interesting to me because I had a wonderful Catholic pastor who was from Argentina when I was a boy at my small-town parish in California. I had included Bergoglio a ways down the list because I felt he was a longshot candidate due to his age and his inability to speak English. When the newly elected pontiff finally appeared on the central balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica, I was initially unsure whether I would like him or not as he seemed a bit reserved, but I was soon won over by his profound humility, simplicity, prayerfulness, charity, and joyfulness. Paying closer attention to videos of the first public appearances of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, I have since come to realize that every modern pope is a bit nervous when he is first elected because he realizes the enormous responsibility of that office to which he has been elected by his brother cardinals and which he has accepted for the sake of his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
We are currently observing the Jubilee Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis. Yet in a certain sense, the past three years of Francis' pontificate have been years of mercy for the whole Church and for the world. God has given us a special pope to reform and cleanse the Church by challenging each one of us--from the highest-ranking cardinal to the lowest layperson--to examine our lives, identify patterns of worldly and sinful thought and behavior that are not in conformity with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and undertake a lifelong journey of daily personal conversion. Through his simple and direct preaching and the simplicity of his own lifestyle, Francis has been effectively training us to reject the materialistic and elitist attitudes so prevalent in our age and to follow Christ faithfully in our everyday lives. He has reminded us of the need to be good stewards and protectors of all the gifts that God has given us, from the innocent unborn child in the womb to our beautiful planet Earth. He has brought renewed vigor to the Church's missionary mandate by urging her members to go out and meet people where they are instead of waiting for people to come to her. And his vision of the Church as a field hospital after battle, with his emphasis on Divine Mercy and the importance of works of charity, is appropriate and welcome at this particular moment in history when so many people are hurt in various ways and desperately in need of the touch of Christ's healing love and compassion.
Given that Pope Francis is such a blessing to our Church today, it is painful to see him being often so profoundly misunderstood, both by the secular international news media and by many well-intentioned "conservative" Catholics. Worldly journalists frequently view and portray Francis in their own image as some kind of radical, revolutionary pontiff who is open to changing certain Church teachings in the name of mercy and compassion toward those in sinful situations, while many faithful and fearful Catholics, including certain cardinals--misled by that inaccurate portrayal--apprehensively view him the same way, as a disastrously "liberal" pontiff who's ready and willing to attempt to share Christ's mercy with unrepentant sinners at the price of apostasy from the objective truths of the Faith. Nothing could be further from the truth. Francis' pontificate has not been a radical departure from that of his predecessors; on the contrary, as those close to Francis always emphasize, it has been an exercise in continuity with the other recent popes on all essential matters of doctrine and discipline.
This becomes abundantly clear when you start to read his writings: quotes from Benedict XVI, John Paul II, Paul VI, and John XXIII are to be found all over the place. And when you listen to his Angelus addresses and homilies and then compare them with those of our previous great popes, you find the very same themes being repeatedly echoed and explored: God's infinite love for each one of us, the universe as His creation, our role as stewards of creation, the dignity of each human life, salvation through Christ alone, freedom and personal responsibility, marriage and family life according to God's plan, justice and human rights, the existence of Satan and the fallen angels, sin and grace, conversion and Divine Mercy, the joy of being Christian, the redemptive value of suffering, authentic liturgical renewal in line with Vatican II, ecumenism and Christian unity, the principle of subsidiarity, the proper role of the free market in wealth and job creation, government as service to the common good, and so on and so forth. And thanks to his Jesuit training, Francis is a highly competent and accessible teacher.
Just like his predecessors, Francis takes Catholic doctrine seriously, and his pastoral outreach is in no way opposed to that doctrine but simply flows out of it naturally. With the arrival of Pope Francis on the scene of the Church, there has been no change of substance or essentials, only a change of style and emphasis. But that very change of style is often mistaken for a change of substance. Hence the calls from certain well-meaning Catholic critics for Pope Francis to clearly reiterate and clarify Church teaching on sexual morality, marriage and family life and to refrain from changing the teachings on those subjects. If the critics would take the time to read some of Francis' writings, addresses and homilies, notably his opening address at the recent Synod on the Family, they would find that he has already done this. And as for changing Church doctrine on marriage and family life, the critics seem to have forgotten that Pope Francis couldn't change any doctrine even if he wanted to, because the Holy Spirit protects the Church, and in a special way the pope, from teaching error in matters of faith and morals. And despite the vain hopes of some and the solemn warnings of others, Francis himself has no intention of altering any part of Catholic doctrine.
None of this is to say that Pope Francis has not made any mistakes in non-essential matters or that there is no room for legitimate and respectful criticism of his decisions and actions in certain areas that lie outside his proper competence. For example, I think that his acceptance of the human-induced global-warming hypothesis will end up damaging the Church somewhat in the long run given that NASA satellite data actually indicate a general decline in average global temperatures over the past eighteen years despite continued accumulation of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere, and that cooler temperatures are likely to persist through the next three decades thanks to reduced solar activity. No pope is infallible on scientific matters because science is a search for truth--often clouded by human bias and tainted by corruption--not the truth itself. But even if Francis turns out to have been wrong on global temperatures, this should not obscure the central message of his important and wide-ranging encyclical Laudato Si or the many aspects of Catholic social teaching and care for God's creation clearly reiterated for our time within that landmark teaching document. And we should remember that no human Vicar of Christ, not even a saint or a genius, is perfect, or ever will be. Pope Francis himself is keenly aware of his ability to sin and make mistakes, which is why he goes to confession frequently and is always asking us to pray for him.
Francis' pontificate offers us an important lesson: We should read the pope's actual writings and listen to his addresses and homilies for ourselves if we want to know what he thinks and to understand what he does, rather than relying on hearsay evidence from the radically secularist (and notoriously unreliable) mainstream media, which has its own agenda diametrically opposed to that of the Church. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, it is Francis who is sane and his critics who are mad. We Catholics are truly blessed to have such a Christ-like pope, the latest in a remarkable chain of holy popes stretching back at least to Pius XII. And may we use this Year of Mercy profitably to repent of our sins and to share the Divine Mercy we have received with our brothers and sisters through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, following the lead of our wise and courageous Holy Father, Pope Francis.