What’s really miraculous about Pope Francis?

What’s really miraculous about Pope Francis?

This week I was in New York for publicity on the launch of my new book, “The Francis Miracle: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church.” Doing the media rounds, most questions I drew were fairly predictable, beginning with the classic American curiosity about whether this pope is

This week I was in New York for publicity on the launch of my new book, “The Francis Miracle: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church.” Doing the media rounds, most questions I drew were fairly predictable, beginning with the classic American curiosity about whether this pope is a liberal or a conservative.

I was a bit surprised, however, that few interviewers popped a question that seems fairly obvious given the book’s title. It is: “What do you mean, ‘miracle’?”

For Catholics who harbor theological or political grievances with Francis, calling him a “miracle” can seem terribly partisan. Even those with no bone to pick with Francis may find it premature, since he’s been in office only two years and it’s a bit early to be drawing such dramatic conclusions.

Both are perfectly reasonable reactions, but neither actually captures what I mean by a “Francis miracle.”

Instead, the point is that there’s something about this pope that can’t be adequately accounted for in terms of purely human calculations, something that requires a supernatural or mystical point of reference in order to be properly understood.

In a nutshell, the enigma is this: What accounts for the sharp contrast between Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina and Pope Francis today?

For sure, that contrast is not absolute. During his 15 years as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio was committed to the poor, strove to re-light the Church’s missionary fires, and lived a life of gospel simplicity. All are traits he’s carried into the papacy.

Yet there clearly is a difference in style and personality, because the Bergoglio of Argentina was nobody’s idea of a pop culture sensation.

The cardinal rarely appeared in public and almost never gave formal interviews. When he did have to take the public stage, friends would call him “shy” and critics “boring.” Nobody came away saying he turned the world on with his smile. In fact, it’s hard to find a photo of a beaming Bergoglio taken before his election two years ago.

Neither was he the spontaneous, shoot-from-the-hip sound bite machine the world sees today. He came off as more controlled, more circumspect, always preferring to operate quietly behind the scenes rather than in public view.

When I asked her in April 2013 what she made of the change, Maria Elena Bergoglio, the pope’s only surviving sibling, said jokingly: “I don’t recognize this guy!”

The question therefore presents itself: What happened?

By nature I’m not inclined to look for supernatural explanations of things, and I’m often skeptical when they’re floated. Yet in keeping with the Sherlock Holmes dictum that after you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth, this seems to me one case in which a mystical account is required.

To put the point differently, Francis himself appears convinced there’s a mystical subtext to the kind of pope he’s become.

Here’s an insider account I provide in the book that makes the point.

“Over Christmas 2013, a veteran Latin American cardinal who has known Bergoglio for decades made an appointment to see his old friend in the Santa Marta, the hotel on Vatican grounds where the pope has chosen to reside. (He lives in Room 201, a slightly larger room than the one he stayed in during the conclave that elected him, giving the pontiff enough space to receive guests comfortably).

“The cardinal, who didn’t wish to be named, said he looked at Francis and, referring to the exuberance and spontaneity that are now hallmarks of his public image, said to him point-blank: ‘You are not the same man I knew in Buenos Aires. What’s happened to you’?

“According to the cardinal, this was Francis’ answer:

“ ‘On the night of my election, I had an experience of the closeness of God that gave me a great sense of interior freedom and peace,’ the cardinal quoted the pope as saying, ‘and that sense has never left me.’ ”

In other words, Francis believes he experienced a miracle.

There’s nothing new, of course, about popes seeing a touch of the divine in the things that happen to them.

Pope St. John Paul II was profoundly convinced that on May 13, 1981, the Virgin Mary changed the flight path of a bullet to preserve his life and his papacy. That was the day of the assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square, and it also was the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. The pope believed Mary was the reason he survived.

Among other things, that conviction explains why it was always implausible that John Paul would resign, no matter how frail he grew near the end. He believed the Virgin wanted him to continue, and he was never going to wake up one morning and just call it quits.

In similar fashion, it seems unlikely Francis today will heed calls to rein in his free-wheeling public persona in any significant way, given that it’s not the product of a PR war room, but rather what he believes he experienced as an act of God.

Whether his papacy is truly “miraculous,” in the sense of boosting the long-term fortunes of Catholicism in some world-changing way, remains to be seen. There’s no doubt, however, that as Francis views it, his is a mission with a miracle at its core.

Read the introduction to John’s book here.

The pope and the movements

On the subject of whether Francis is a liberal or a conservative, the usual take in the media is that he’s a progressive and thus lukewarm at best, openly hostile at worst, to more conservative forces in the Church.

One such force that’s often perceived as fairly conservative is what Catholics refer to as “the movements,” meaning largely lay-led groups, founded during the 20th century, that came to full flower under the papacy of John Paul II. Major players in that world include Opus Dei, the Neocatechumenate, Communion and Liberation, the Focolare, Schoenstatt, Sant’Egidio, L’Arche, and so on.

Before proceeding, two stipulations are in order.

First, technically not all of these groups are “movements.” Opus Dei, for instance, is a personal prelature under Church law, which is something akin to a non-territorial diocese led by a figure called a prelate, who has the responsibilities of a bishop. In popular parlance, however, they tend to get lumped into the same category.

Second, it’s flat-out false to say they’re all “conservative.” Some, such as Sant’Egidio, lean politically a bit more to the left. Others, such as Focolare, contain a little bit of everything. Still others, such as L’Arche, are impossible to pigeonhole in any ideological sense. Some even have a different political hue depending on what part of the world we’re talking about.

That said, these outfits are generally seen in the Catholic street as leaning collectively to the right, if for no other reason than that they generally take official Church teaching for granted rather than agitating for change.

Given that background, it’s striking that Pope Francis this week showed some love for three of the better-known movements: Focolare, the Neocatechumenate, and Communion and Liberation.

Focolare was founded during World War II by an Italian lay woman named Chiara Lubich and is committed to the ideal of “unity,” especially among Christians and the various religions. Today it’s present in 194 countries and claims more than 100,000 followers.

On Wednesday, Francis held an audience with 60 bishops from 35 countries who describe themselves as “friends” of the Focolare movement. They met in Rome on the theme of the Eucharist, and Francis reminded them that the presence of Christ in the sacrament of Communion, not their own personalities or agenda, is the heart of the matter.

“The bishop is the principle of unity in the Church, but this doesn’t happen without the Eucharist,” he said. “The bishop doesn’t gather people around his own persona, or his own ideas, but around Christ who is present in the Word and in the sacrament of his own flesh and blood.”

Francis offered a special message of solidarity for bishops who came from conflict zones in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine.

And then, speaking to the Focolare generally, the pontiff said he wanted to “encourage you to carry forward your commitment in favor of the ecumenical path and inter-religious dialogue,” and also thanked the Focolare for “the contribution you’ve made to greater communion among the various ecclesial movements.”

On Friday, he met with members of the Neocatechumenal Way, a program of Christian formation founded in Spain in 1964 by two Catholic laity, Kiko Argüello and Carmen Hernández.

It’s known for a high-octane Latin spirituality and a deep missionary drive, and has been controversial both among some Catholic liberals for its deep papal loyalty and some conservatives for its allegedly heterodox liturgical and doctrinal traditions.

Among members, the movement is often known simply as “the Way.”

In a classic Francis touch, the pontiff urged the Neocatechumenate to reach out to the peripheries of the world.

“How much solitude, how much suffering, how much distance from God is in all the peripheries of Europe and America, and in so many cities of Asia!” he said. “How much need the human person has today, in every latitude, to hear that God loves him, and that love is possible!”

Francis then heaped praise upon the movement.

“The Neocatechumenal Way is a ‘true gift of providence to the Church of our times,’ as my predecessors affirmed,” Francis said.

“To see all this is a consolation,” he added, “because it confirms the Spirit of God is alive and working in his Church, even today, and he’s responding to the needs of the modern person.”

Finally, on Saturday Pope Francis met with more than 80,000 members of Communion and Liberation from 47 countries, gathered in Rome to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of their founder, Italian Rev. Luigi Giussani, and the 60th anniversary of the launch of the movement.

The ciellini, as members are called, draw on the works of Giussani to offer a vision of Christian education rooted in a personal and immediate encounter with Christ. Its historical base is in Milan, where it was sometimes seen as an alternative to the center-left Catholic ethos projected by Cardinals Carlo Maria Martini and Dionigi Tettamanzi.

It has a different political vibe elsewhere. In Brazil, for instance, 50,000 members of the progressive Sin Tierra (“Without Land”) movement, which advocates for landless workers, requested to be admitted in 2008.

Communion and Liberation brought friends from other faiths with them to the encounter with the pope, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, as well as representatives of the Orthodox and Muslim traditions.

Once again, Francis was fulsome in his praise.

Giussani’s thought, he said, is “profoundly human and reaches into the deepest yearnings of the human person,” adding that reading Giussani’s books and articles did much good “for me and for my priestly life.”

Francis joined Pope Benedict XVI in referring to Communion and Liberation as “an impulse derived from the Holy Spirit.”

The inadequacy of seeing Francis through the prism of left vs. right should already be clear, but if it weren’t, the specter of this allegedly “liberal” pope cozying up to three supposedly “conservative” movements, all in the span of a few days, ought to drive the point home.

On the other hand, if we begin by seeing Francis in the terms most natural to him, as a missionary and pastor, then his enthusiasm for outfits that encourage laity to see themselves as missionaries in their own walks of life – getting out of the sacristy and into the street, to use a classic Francis expression – makes all the sense in the world.

Remembering Cardinal Egan

Whenever a public figure dies, there’s a natural tendency to go a little bit soft in how that person’s legacy is cast. Often these encomia come off as artificial, but there are occasions when they feel more akin to historical justice.

Affectionate commentary generated by the death this week of Cardinal Edward Egan seems to fall in the second category, because there may not have been another senior American churchman whose negative public image stood in such sharp contrast to the private man.

As the archbishop of New York from 2000 to 2009, Egan was often seen as aloof, isolated, and autocratic. The usual take was that he wasn’t especially beloved by his priests or his people, and he got rough treatment from the media. A famous 2007 profile in New York magazine, for instance, carried the headline “The Cardinal’s Sins” and chronicled anti-Egan angst in various quarters of the archdiocese.

To be clear, Egan brought some of it on himself.

He reacted defensively, for instance, when criticism of his handling of sexual abuse cases in Bridgeport first surfaced after he had moved to New York, and too slowly conceded that mistakes may have been made and apologized for them. He was publicly critical of the National Review Board created by the US bishops as part of their response to the abuse scandals, disappointing many reformers inside and outside the Church.

Egan was notoriously ambivalent about his relationship with the media, and it showed. He also had a no-nonsense persona unapologetic about wielding authority, which was very much the model of a successful Catholic prelate in the 1950s-era Catholicism in which he came of age, but which was out of fashion by the time he rose to the top.

Even his remarkably sonorous baritone – talk about a guy with a “radio voice” – would have sounded to most people like the voice of God in another age, but it sometimes came off as pompous and stuffy when he used it.

On the other hand, much of Egan’s negative image was due to factors beyond his control.

For one thing, he was sandwiched between two highly popular and charismatic archbishops of New York, John O’Connor and Timothy Dolan. He was doomed to suffer in comparison – a bit like the situation Pope Benedict XVI found himself in between John Paul II and Francis.

For another, Egan inherited a truckload of unfinished business from O’Connor, who had a massive pastor’s heart, but not much of an interest in business management. O’Connor left behind an annual deficit estimated at $20 million and a long list of parishes and schools that everyone knew were unsustainable but which he steadfastly refused to close.

Egan had to make the tough choices O’Connor could not bring himself to face, which is never a prescription for popularity.

Also, Egan’s tenure in New York overlapped the worst years of the sexual abuse scandals in the Church, a time when few bishops came out looking especially good. Add the fact that Egan was a staunch and unapologetic conservative in a media environment that leans to the left, and it’s probably fair to say the deck was stacked.

In truth, the Egan depicted in popular impressions bore only a passing resemblance to the real man.

I always amazed my colleagues in the New York press corps, for instance, when I told them Egan was actually a rock star in Rome. It was true. He knew the place well from his years as a judge on the Roman Rota, an assignment that put him in a position to work closely with John Paul II during an overhaul of the Code of Canon Law in 1983. He spoke Italian fluently, he knew the people and the culture, and he felt at home there.

When he interacted with the Italian media, Egan came off as relaxed, spontaneous, and funny, not to mention razor sharp. He struck people as caring and pastoral, not at all a stuffed shirt or a pompous ecclesiastical potentate. My Italian colleagues were always stunned to hear that in the States, people thought of him as “embattled” or “unpopular.”

People who dealt with Egan on a personal basis in New York always had the same impression. They’d always say the man they knew was accessible, supportive, kind, genuinely interested in them as people, and could flash a great sense of humor. They’d often express frustration that those qualities rarely seemed to surface in media depictions or public conversation.

In retirement, Egan threw himself into pastoral activity far away from the spotlight, among other things taking real pleasure in doing confirmations for the archdiocese of New York. People who rubbed shoulders with him in those more intimate settings would almost always come away charmed and impressed, shaking their heads over how to square the man they’d just met with the image they’d imbibed.

In the end, perhaps the best summary of Egan’s life is that he was a decent human being and a true man of the Church. When he was asked to do a tough job, he did it without a lot of whining or hand-wringing.

He made mistakes along the way, and leaves behind a mixed legacy. But perhaps the remembrances in coming days that will round out that assessment will also serve to lift up the real man, who was always there beneath the myth.

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