On Tuesday Pope Francis marked the fifth anniversary of his election. He was a surprising choice to be sure — a pope “from the ends of the earth,” as Francis himself put it. The surprises have not stopped since. The pope has provided them in abundance, and the nature of the news business is to highlight the differences, not the continuities, with what came before.
Yet this week a short letter was published by Benedict XVI, Francis’ predecessor, whose utterly unprecedented decision to abdicate his office opened the way for Francis. While noting the obvious differences in style, Benedict XVI affirmed the “inner continuity” of the two pontificates.
What might constitute that “inner continuity” aside from the fundamental mission of the successor to St. Peter, to confess that Jesus is the Son of the living God, as Peter himself did in Matthew 16:18?
I think that the best way to understand the mission of Pope Francis is in light of the teaching of Benedict. At Christmas 2005, Benedict signed his first major document, an encyclical entitled God is Love.
Benedict wrote there a summary of the Church’s identity:
“The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.”
It’s possible to consider that after the great Christian witness (martyria) of our time, St. John Paul II, and the profound teacher of the right worship of God (leitourgia), Benedict XVI, we now have a pope whose heart is manifestly open to the suffering through the practical ministry of charity (diakonia).
Pope Francis is greeted by faithful during an audience with the participants of homeless jubilee at the Vatican, Nov. 11, 2016.
One of the most practically significant and powerfully symbolic reforms of Pope Francis was one of his first, when he appointed Konrad Krajewski as the papal almoner, the one who exercises personal charity on behalf of the pope. The post had become largely ceremonial, separated from actual contact with the poor. Archbishop Krajewski, who before his appointment by Francis was known for his practical aid to the poor of Rome, has been a font of creative activity. There are now showers and a dormitory for the homeless at St. Peter’s, with haircuts and shaves available from volunteer barbers. Krajewski’s office distributes sleeping bags to the homeless who prefer to remain on the streets, and organizes excursions for them — whether to the beach, or to the Vatican museums.
When Pope Francis celebrated his 80th birthday in December 2016, Krajewski brought some of the homeless served by his office to have breakfast with the Holy Father. And last year, when a refugee family had a housing problem, Krajewski moved them into his apartment while he slept in his office.
Pope Francis often …read more