By ERIKA ANDERSON, Special to the Bulletin | Published March 20, 2015
ATLANTA—Pope Francis has an approval rating that most politicians would envy and is known for his humility. But John Allen Jr., reporter and editor for The Boston Globe who has covered the Vatican for decades, said every move by Pope Francis, though genuine, is also designed to show the world a new face of the Catholic Church.
Allen spoke to a capacity crowd on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta. His March 2 talk was sponsored by the Aquinas Center of Theology, an affiliate of the university, as part of its major Catholic speakers lecture series. Allen, the author of several books on the Catholic Church, Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI, joined the Globe in 2014 after 16 years as senior correspondent at the National Catholic Reporter.
Pope Francis’ approval rating in recent polls is around 89 percent in the U.S. among Americans and about 93 percent among American Catholics—the highest approval rating of any religious leader in the world, Allen said.
“Sit with that number for a minute and put that in juxtaposition with what all of us in this room know about how badly divided the Catholic Church in the United States is over virtually everything,” he said. “The truth of it is, under ordinary circumstances, it would be tough to get 93 percent of American Catholics to agree that today is Monday.”
The fervor surrounding Pope Francis is undeniable, Allen said. But instead of being content with the pope’s celebrity status, Catholics should ask themselves “what missionary use, what apostolic use, what evangelical use” is the faith community going to make of this historical moment.
“Is this going to be a moment in which the fascination of the pope translates into the new evangelization on behalf of the church? Or is it going to pass away like so many other pop culture phenomenon rise and fall without really leaving a dent on their times? That’s the question we have to ask,” Allen said.
Pope is ‘brilliant Jesuit politician’
He believes the reason the world has found the pope so appealing is because people have “clued in” to the pillars of the pope’s vision. There are three such pillars, Allen said, including leadership as service, a deeply missionary concept of the church and, finally, mercy as the core Christian message for this moment in time.
Immediately after Pope Francis’ election, he began to show his tendency toward leadership as service. These gestures included eschewing the papal apartment to stay in the Vatican guesthouse and calling the newspaper in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he’d served as archbishop, to cancel his subscription. These were not public relations exercises, Allen said, but the pope showing who he’s always been. In Buenos Aires, he lived in an area considered a slum in an apartment in which he had to leave his stove turned on during the winter because the building couldn’t afford heat.
Still, Allen said, each of these gestures is deliberate.
“Beneath that humble, simple exterior lies the mind of a brilliant Jesuit politician,” Allen said. “This is a pope who knows what he is doing all the time. There are no accidents. There are no coincidences. He’s not stumbling or lurching from one situation to the next. He has a game plan.”
This game plan, Allen said, is that Pope Francis is trying to shift the way the world sees the leadership in the Catholic Church.
“He wants to make it clear that in the outside world, leadership may be about amassing, consolidating, maintaining and exercising power, but it must not be that way in the church.”
Mission is also a pillar of Pope Francis’ papacy. He wants to be seen as the “missionary-in-chief,” Allen said. Though the pope has been criticized for not seeming to be pro-life enough, Allen called Pope Francis “a robustly pro-life pope.”
In Allen’s assessment, the pope believes that other Catholic social teachings need more attention at this time, “not as an alternative to our engagement on behalf of the culture of life, but as an organic complement to it.”
“I believe his conviction is that the world will take us seriously as apostles of Christ if, in the first instance, they see us sincerely committed to the welfare of the most vulnerable, the most marginalized, the most forgotten, the most abandoned in our environments,” Allen said. “That’s Francis in mission. I believe that’s the motor fuel of his papacy.”
Mercy, Allen said, is the third pillar of his papacy and his overwhelming message to the people.
“I’m profoundly convinced that if you did a textual study of everything Francis has said since his election—every word that has flowed out of his mouth—you would find that by far the most common substantive noun he evokes is mercy,” Allen said. “This commitment to mercy doesn’t just run through the pope’s speech, it runs through his deeds. One of the ways you can see this is his passionate commitment to the sacrament of reconciliation.”
Allen believes that everything the pope is addressing, from reforming the Vatican bank to raised complex pastoral situations, such as how to respond to Catholics who have divorced and remarried outside the church, is being done in a way so that the church will be seen as a community of mercy.
“My prediction is that when the final words about this papacy are written, Francis will be remembered as the pope of mercy.”
Church as the ‘field hospital of humanity’
The pillars upon which Francis is building his papacy are more than just about the ferment that surrounds him, Allen said.
“This isn’t simply a winning strategy for a papacy, this is a winning strategy for an evangelizing church,” he said.
Despite a sometimes-divided church, Allen hopes Pope Francis is changing the way others see Catholicism.
“(People) may see a community that despite its diversity, despite its differences, is genuinely making a good faith effort to come together and to realize this mission statement that the pope has given us for the church in our time, of being the field hospital of humanity—the place where the wounds of a broken, bruised and hurrying world go to be cured,” Allen said. “If that’s the faith that Catholicism projects to the world in the here and now, and not because Francis told us to, and not because of his poll numbers, but because it’s the evangelically right thing to do, then that is a winning strategy for our church in our time, every day of the week and twice on Sunday.”
Following his talk, Allen took questions from the audience and spent time talking to attendees, including Justin Ryan, a parishioner of the Cathedral of Christ the King, who is a longtime fan of the journalist.
“When it comes to institutional knowledge of the Catholic Church in the English-speaking world, there’s just no one better,” he said. “I have all of his books and I know what a great writer he is, but I didn’t know how he’d be as a speaker. He exceeded all my expectations.”
Rozlin Broome, a parishioner of St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell, said she appreciated learning more about Pope Francis from someone who has spent time with him.
“I enjoyed John’s humor,” she said. “He articulated in a clear and concise way why Pope Francis is so magnetic.”
“Our faith is so rich and deep. My hope by attending these lectures is to learn about leaders of our faith and how they have or are inspiring others, so I can continue (to bring) that light to others,” she said.