When a pope’s reign passes the four-year mark, enough time has passed to assess the meaning of the papacy. Our nation’s founders recognized this crucial span when they afforded presidents exactly that amount of time before giving the electorate the opportunity to weigh in with their votes.
Pope Francis has made quite a mark in four short years, so much so that many of my Catholic friends say they have the contradictory sense that his papacy has just begun while it seems he has been pope for a lifetime. It’s hard to imagine the church without him in charge.
The early images were startling. From the balcony at the Vatican, where the world first laid eyes on him, he asked us to pray for him. He took the name Francis, so novel that none of us place a Roman numeral after it. He is just Francis. No one since Peter has gotten away with that. Even Pope Gregory the Great went by Gregory I.
Those first impressions were strong ones. When a camera caught him paying his own hotel bill in Vatican City, much of the world smiled and asked, “What sort of guy is this?” Donald Trump tweeted that paying one’s way was “unpopelike.”
The thing is, only the pope gets to decide what’s popelike. After the ultra-severe, don’t rock the boat Pope Pius XII, along came John XXIII, smiley, revolutionary and now a saint. John Paul II, also a saint, was Polish and polished, movie star handsome, both warm and tough as nails. Took a bullet, you know.
Francis broke a mold that never existed. Still, more than any recent pope, he has raised the issue of what it means to be “popelike.” Trump may have been on to something. Should a pope be photographed at a hotel reception desk swiping a Visa card? Should he rush on the spur of the moment to a port city where refugees drowned attempting to make it to shore?
Should he pontificate (of course, everything he says is pontificating) on topics as far afield as climate change and a military tactic in Mosul? Should he even consider admitting remarried divorcees to the communion table? Is it seemly to tell a single mom he’d baptize her baby if her parish priest would not? Is he anti-abortion enough?
While his manner and tone have a radical feel, his doctrinal pronouncements are quite moderate, quite in keeping with the sermons and writings of recent popes and councils. Benedict XVI’s resignation, which resulted in the presence of two living popes, was far more precedent shattering than anything Francis has said or done.
So what sets him apart?
I think it’s where Francis places his center, the core from which he speaks and writes and makes his presence felt. His sermons, his writings, never fail to mention the poor, the oppressed, the refugee.
And he has moved his papacy closer to the poorer among us. He did this literally when he paid his own hotel bill and when he chose to take up residence in a spare suite at St. Martha’s House rather than the papal apartments.
All recent popes have lived simply in private, but Pope Francis has made the gesture much more visible and impossible to evade. He has declined even to wear luxurious vestments or ride in a limousine.
Ironically, the second hallmark of his reign is the joyfulness with which he conducts it. He scolds and fulminates when necessary, sure, but soon breaks into an infectious smile to tell the world that his Christianity is one of song and dance amid Earth’s sorrows. His Jesus knows how to laugh.
Finally, above all, is Jesus himself. Francis really sees himself as the vicar of Christ, the “Vice Jesus.” Being popelike, to him, means being Christlike. Obviously, he thinks Jesus would have identified with desperate refugees seeking a safe harbor, with single moms seeking salvation for their babies. This Jesus would have started every sermon with “Blessed are you poor,” every prayer with, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
He thinks Jesus would have stepped up to the hotel desk and paid his own bill.
Orlando R. Barone is a writer in Pennsylvania. He wrote this for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Column courtesy of the Associated Press.