Answering the Call
From across the globe came women and men, laity and ordained, to take part in “Francis, a Voice Crying Out in the World: Mercy, Justice, Love and Care for the Earth.”
Hosted by Villanova’s Institute for Catholic Social Thought April 12–15, the conference featured nine keynote speakers, dozens of session panelists and a total of 140 participants. Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the pope’s ambassador — or apostolic nuncio — to the United States, also attended.
Presenters opened windows into Francis’ life, spirituality and mindset. They shed light on what makes him tick and dispelled misconceptions. For example, they examined how Francis’ words and actions build on those of previous popes. In particular, the speakers pointed out ways in which Francis is continuing the renewal begun at the Second Vatican Council.
Called Vatican II for short, the historic council brought together bishops, theological experts and non-Catholic observers from around the world in the early ’60s to discuss how to reinvigorate the life and mission of the Church in the modern world. While the Church experienced immediate outcomes from the council’s decisions — Mass in people’s native tongues, a stronger role for laypeople and openness toward other faith traditions — some changes are still unfolding.
Keynote speakers making the case that Francis supports this ongoing renewal have devoted their careers to understanding all things Vatican II. Harvard-educated historian and Georgetown professor the Rev. John O’Malley, SJ, PhD, has written internationally acclaimed books on church councils and other topics. Villanova’s own Professor of Theology Massimo Faggioli, PhD, a leading church historian, spent years studying in the Vatican Secret Archive and is frequently consulted by the media.
“The conference placed Pope Francis within the Church’s tradition without idolizing him,” says the Rev. Ikenna Paschal Okpaleke, a Nigerian priest earning his doctorate at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. “It stressed that what is at the center of these types of discussions is our fidelity to Christ and our love for the faith.”
Pope of “Firsts”
In some ways, though, the current pope breaks the mold. He is the first to take the name Francis; first to have come from the order of priests known as the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits; first to have been born in South America; and first since the Second Vatican Council not to have participated in that momentous event. How have these factors shaped him?
“Francis’ perspective of the post-Vatican II era differs from that of people in the industrialized West,” Dr. Faggioli says. “In the United States especially, many Catholics associate the political and social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s with a weakening of the Church. Because Francis lived in South America, he saw a Church that was becoming more authentic, distancing itself from militarist regimes and opening up relations with other Christians.”
Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, SDB, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, shared his reflections as a fellow Latin American clergyman. Having known the pope for years, he drew on personal experience to speak about Francis’ concern for human welfare, devotion to Mary and simple lifestyle.
The Church in Africa can relate to Francis’ “global south,” developing-world perspective, according to the Rev. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, SJ, PhD, the president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Africa and Madagascar. In his address, Father Orobator described how Francis’ leadership style, which emphasizes outreach to the peripheries, resonates with a continent that has suffered much.
The Rev. Antonio Spadaro, SJ, took up the topic of what it means that Francis is a Jesuit. The editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, Father Spadaro connected Francis’ ideas on church reform with the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus in 1540.
Like Ignatius, Francis believes that reform begins with oneself — a conviction he made clear when, in a 2013 interview with Father Spadaro, the new pope announced to the world, “I am a sinner.”