ROME — Christmas and Easter are the peak spiritual moments in the life of the Church every year, and one usually can learn a lot about what’s on a pope’s mind by paying careful attention to the notes he strikes on these occasions.

This Easter season, perhaps the most arresting insights came in a prayer Pope Francis delivered on Good Friday at the Via Crucis procession, or “Way of the Cross,” marking the path of Christ toward death on the Cross.

The prayer was essentially a hymn of praise to the Cross, as an expression of a love willing to suffer and die to save the world.

Francis identified 14 contemporary situations in which he believes the pain of Christ is still palpable, and many rested easily with the popular image of him as a progressive, peace-and-justice sort of pope: people fleeing war and violence, arms dealers, corruption, environmental harm, the “insatiable cemeteries” for refugees formed by the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, and so on.

The pontiff also listed situations in which the Cross can be seen in a more positive sense, as expressions of self-giving love, and again most came straight out of the perceived Francis playbook: religious men and women, ministers “who are faithful and humble,” and so on.

However, there were three points where Francis stepped outside his own narrative, so to speak, offering reminders that he’s not quite the one-dimensional figure some stereotypes suggest.

In each case, I’ll quote the pontiff’s language and then unpack it briefly.

Faith in public

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in those who wish to remove you from public places and exclude you from public life, in the name of a pagan laicism or that equality you yourself taught us.

In general, Francis is seen as a pope on friendly terms with the secular world, chatting amicably with left-wing atheist journalists, calling up radical politicians when they’re sick, appearing on the cover of pro-gay magazines, and generally playing well with the lapsed and unchurched.

His Good Friday language, however, was a reminder that Francis is not a naïf when he looks at secularity, grasping that there are situations in which its alleged neutrality to religion shades off into overt prejudice.

Spaniards, for instance, heard his language as a reference to a recent dust-up in Madrid, where a new left-wing mayor this year overhauled an annual civic parade celebrating the Epiphany, marking the Biblical story of the three kings, known as the Cabalgata de los Reyes. Changes included adding an homage to Mother Earth, a DJ truck and dancers and musicians from Africa and the Arab world, and having a woman play one of the kings.

Critics saw it all as an attempt to de-Christianize the festival. That perception was reinforced by a recent push in Seville, which ended up failing mostly because of its impracticality, to eliminate religious references in all street names, in a city where half its avenues and boulevards are named for saints.

Similar trends are evident elsewhere, including the United States, and the kinds of Christians most likely to be outraged — those who see secularity as potentially menacing, and who for whom defending the faith from its encroachments as a priority — aren’t necessarily accustomed to thinking of Francis as their strongest ally.

On Good Friday, however, Francis hinted that he sees the lay of the land, too, and perhaps may become more outspoken.

Mercy, justice, and faith

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the merciful who have found in mercy the greatest expression of justice and faith.

Another frequent criticism of Francis is that his emphasis on mercy is open to misinterpretation, as if it betokens going soft on the idea of justice — that there must be consequences for sin — and that it signals lassitude about the traditional demands of Church teaching and practice.

In effect, Francis responded to that critique by suggesting that mercy is not the denial of justice and faith, but its “greatest expression.”

Mercy, he hinted on Good Friday, is a virtue that informs the way the Church goes about imposing accountability and discipline — not a means of questioning whether those things are needed in the first place.

Fidelity and fruitfulness

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in families that live their vocation of married life in fidelity and fruitfulness.

As the Catholic world awaits the impending release of Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family, drawing conclusions from his two tumultuous synods of bishops, concern continues to be palpable that Francis is so focused on broken and “irregular” situations, such as the divorced and civilly remarried or people living together outside marriage, that he may end up discouraging Catholics who are trying to live the full truth of what the Church teaches on marriage and sexuality.

In that context, it’s striking that his one clear reference to the family on Good Friday accented precisely the qualities he’s often accused of playing down:

  • “Fidelity,” meaning, in part, marriage as an indissoluble lifetime commitment.
  • “Fruitfulness,” which is often a sort of Catholic code for openness to new life and adherence to the traditional ban on artificial contraception.

Using those two keywords was a way for Francis to signal that he’s not jettisoning the Church’s traditional understanding of family life, whatever he may end up doing on specific points in his document.

Of course, Francis did not conceive of his Good Friday prayer primarily as a rebuttal to critics or a political manifesto; it was a spiritual paean to the Cross during the holiest period on the Christian calendar.

It’s also true that those convinced Francis is a little soft in these areas may regard his language on Good Friday as mere rhetoric, not necessarily backed up by policy decisions.

Yet it’s always intriguing when a public figure defies his or her narrative, whatever it may mean, and that’s basically what Francis did, in a moment in which it’s safe to assume he pondered his words with special care.