Who is Pope Francis?
Pope Francis is the 266th Bishop of Rome. Francis was elected to the papacy on March 13, 2013, to replace Benedict XVI, who resigned from office two weeks earlier. Themes that have come to define Francis' papacy include poverty, mercy, and joy.
Francis is the papal name of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to two Italian immigrants, on December 17, 1936. He holds advanced degrees in chemistry, philosophy, and theology. Before starting his seminary education, he worked as a janitor, a bar bouncer, and a lab assistant for a chemist. After several years of study, he entered the the Society of Jesus in 1958. After finishing his initial training, Bergoglio took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and became a Jesuit on March 12, 1960. He was ordained to the priesthood almost a decade later, in December 1969.
Prior to coming to Rome, Bergoglio served several roles as bishop in Argentina, including Metropolitan Archbishop. He was made a cardinal in 2001 by Pope John Paul II, and held several administrative positions within the Roman Curia, the central governing body of the Catholic Church.
What exactly does the Pope do?
The Pope gets his name from the Greek word for "Father," pappas. He's called a father because of his role as the spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. He is responsible for unifying Catholicism's voice and centralizing its doctrine. The Pope is also the head of Vatican City, which is the world's smallest independent city-state.
It's the Pope's job to appoint bishops. Sure, it's a complicated process involving several people, but the Pope has final say in these appointments. Naming bishops is an important task, since these men carry out the Pope's vision at local levels. There are more than 5,000 bishops throughout the world, and it's the Pope's responsibility to meet with them at least once every five years.
The Pope also selects the College of Cardinals, which is the group that will elect Francis' successor. According to Thomas Reese, popes "appoint men who reflect [their] own views on theology and other issues facing the church." Cardinal selection, then, is crucial to the Pope's work since these men will continue to carry out Francis' vision for the Church even after he's gone.
In addition, the pope offers a weekly blessing and a weekly address to tourists and Catholics visiting the Vatican. He also delivers messages on Church holidays, including the Urbi et Orbi, "to the city and to the World," given at Christmas and Easter.
Where did the name "Francis" come from?
Since 533, it's been customary for each newly appointed pope to choose his own papal name. The pope's name carries a great deal of significance since it signifies the kind of pope he will be, and what kinds of passions, interests, theologies, etc. will come to define his reign.
In an address to journalists several days after his appointment, Francis (birth name: Jorge Mario Bergoglio) recounted how he came to choose his name. During the conclave, after Bergoglio received two-thirds of the vote, thus sealing his papal fate, Cardinal Claudio Hummes whispered to him, "Don't forget the poor!" According to Pope Francis, Hummes' words reminded him of St. Francis.
St. Francis was an Italian friar who lived from 1181 to 1226. He is the patron saint of animals and ecology, and is remembered for his solidarity with the poor, his love of animals, and his attempts at interfaith dialogue with Muslims. According to legend, following a pilgrimage to Rome, Christ appeared to him, saying, "Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins." Though Pope Francis has not publicly referenced this legend, some see a parallel between it and the current pope's desire for reform.
What are the hallmarks of Francis' theology?
There are several theological themes dominating his papacy so far: poverty, mercy, and joy.
During his first interview with journalists after his election, Francis said, "How I would love a church that is poor, and for the poor." These words have provided the context for many of his actions, from paying his own hotel bill to dispensing with the traditional costly popemobile and vestments. In a visit with students last June, Francis remarked, "Poverty is the flesh of the poor Jesus."
In a Lenten homily from his first year as Pope, Francis preached that Jesus' "most powerful message" is "mercy." He told Corriere della Sera that tenderness and mercy are "the heart of the Gospel," and without them, "one doesn't understand Jesus Christ."
To Francis, a church without joy is unthinkable. As the New York Times writes, "Francis knows how to smile, and how to make others smile." Francis' first apostolic exhortation was titled Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), in which he encouraged Christians "to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by ... joy." In contrast to former popes who were often perceived as stoic and reserved, Francis' demeanor is much more welcoming, warm, and even playful. Many pictures of Francis show him smiling, and many more show his compassionate way with children. In his first Palm Sunday address, he admonished his listeners not to be "men and women of sadness," because "a Christian can never be sad!" He echoed this same sentiment in a cheekier way when he reminded Christians not to be "sourpusses."
Francis is a Jesuit — what does that mean? And does it matter?
Founded in 1540 by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Society of Jesus is a men's religious order that was founded for the broad purpose of "helping souls." St. Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises, his classic text, was developed with the intention of helping a person "overcome" anything that kept him distracted from God's will, and to "order" his life to the service of God.
At the heart of Jesuit spirituality is the belief that God can be found in all things. Rather than seeing reality as being divided between the secular and sacred realms, Jesuits see all things as falling under the purview of spirituality. (This belief might inform Pope Francis' "dogmatic certainty" that God's presence is in the life of every person, and that "even the atheists" are redeemed and made in the image of God.)
Francis's Jesuit affiliation is a relatively big deal for the papacy. For one thing, he's the first Jesuit to hold the office. As part of their final vows to God, at the end of their training, Jesuits promise not to seek high office in the Catholic Church. (Jesuits take their orders so seriously that they are sometimes referred to as "God's Marines.") Secondly, with their emphasis on education and missionary work, Jesuits have sometimes occupied the margins of the Catholic Church. Some Jesuits also have a reputation for being too independent, which, in part, led to Pope Clement XIV actually suppressing the Order in 1773. (Pope Pius VII reinstated them in 1814.)
Why is Pope Francis so popular?
Francis has gained a reputation for being relatable, approachable, and down-to-earth. Some have called Francis "The People's Pope," and the "Pope of the 99 percent." Time named him their Person of the Year in 2013, as did LGBT-interest magazine The Advocate. "In a matter of months," read the Time profile, "Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church — the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world — above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors."
Writing for The Atlantic, Amy Sullivan said Francis has transformed the Church's public image, noting the way that he's inspiring ordinary Catholics was "unthinkable just a few months" before his election.
In an article for The Washington Post, Elizabeth Tenety tries to understand why, with the election of Francis, Catholics have suddenly become "the cool kids on the Church Street." Tenety writes that Francis' critique of "the excesses of religion and politics," leads people to think of him as "the long-awaited Catholic antidote to the religious right." However, Tenety questions how much of a departure Francis has actually made from previous popes. Though Francis might feel refreshing, she argues that he's only doing the work that has been practiced by "countless Christians in [Jesus'] name for millennia."
Has Francis done anything to address the Church's sex abuse crisis?
When it comes to its record of dealing with sex abuse, "the Church deserves to be raked over the coals," according to Catholic journalist Thomas Reese. A 2004 John Jay report found that thousands of minors were sexually abused by Catholic clergy between 1950 and 2002. More shocking is the fact that some high-ranking officials knew of the abuse but did not remedy the situation, either by stripping the abusers of their priesthood or by turning them over to the proper civil authorities.
When Francis took office, many people looked to him to correct the Church's handling of sex abuse. In a 2012 interview, before he was Pope, he made it clear that Church leadership should "never turn a blind eye" to sex abuse, even when coming forward with such information risks "damaging the image of an institution." He said it's a "stupid idea" to quietly relocate an abusive priest to a different parish, since "the priest just takes the problem with him wherever he goes." He also said pedophilia is not a result of, nor is it linked to, celibacy: "If a priest is a pedophile, he is so before he is a priest."
In December 2013, Francis announced the creation of a Vatican committee aimed at fighting sex abuse in the Church, and working with victims and their families. On March 22, 2014, Francis named 8 people to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Of the members, four are women, and one — Marie Collins — is an abuse survivor. The group also includes Cardinal Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, the city in which the US sex abuse crisis story originally broke in 2002.
In an interview with Corriere della Sera, Francis spoke about the issue of sex abuse, and praised the former Pope Benedict for being "courageous" in his attempts to curb it. In the same interview, Francis said that although statistics show that the majority of abuse happens outside the church, "the Church is the only one being attacked." The editorial board of the National Catholic Reporter said Francis' comments sounded "defensive," and encouraged Francis to meet with victims and their families and hear their complaints and concerns. Likewise, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests criticized Francis' remarks, saying they "reflect an archaic, defensive mindset that will not make kids safer."
In an April 11 speech delivered to the International Catholic Child Bureau, Francis asked for forgiveness on behalf of priests who abused children. The Pope's unscripted comments were hailed as his "strongest statement yet" on the sex abuse crisis. Francis said the he is aware of the "personal and moral damage ... carried out by men of the Church," and insisted the Church must be "very firm" in fighting sex abuse. "We do not want to take one step backward in dealing with this problem," said Francis, "because you cannot take chances with children." As critics point out, this might be the first time a pope has spoken out about imposing "sanctions" on guilty bishops.
What is Francis' attitude toward women?
Francis told America Magazine in August 2013 that he thinks it's "necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church." This echoes his earlier comment on the necessity of creating a more "profound theology of womanhood." Francis has also said that that Jesus' mother Mary is "more important than the apostles," though he notes further theological discourse is needed to explain this. He also said, "The Church is feminine: she is Church, she is Bride, she is Mother."
When Pope Francis washed the feet of two women during his Maundy Thursday trip to a youth prison in Rome, he set the tone for a papal shift in attitudes toward women. A 1988 letter from the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments explicitly said that only "chosen men" were to have their feet washed during this ceremony. This wasn't the first time Francis washed women's feet: in 2011, then-Bergoglio made headlines for washing the feet of a pregnant woman.
On the topic of women's ordination to the priesthood, Francis has said the question is "not open to discussion," since it was settled under Pope John Paul II. Francis was referring to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which is Latin for "Priestly Ordination." According to the document, only priests can be ordained since that is the pattern Jesus established when he chose his twelve disciples.
What is Francis' attitude toward gay people?
Though Francis hasn't changed Church doctrine regarding LGBT issues, he has assumed a more loving, tolerant posture towards gay people than some of his predecessors. He said in a July 2013 interview, "If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, well who am I to judge them? The Catechism of the Catholic Church ... says, these persons must not be marginalized for this, they must be integrated into society." (Some have noted that Francis' use of the word "gay" as opposed to "homosexual" is itself a sign of progress.)
While this statement has not yet resulted in any reforms at the doctrinal level, its power should not be overlooked. According to the prominent LGBT magazine The Advocate, who selected Francis as its 2013 Person of the Year, we should not "underestimate any pope's capacity for persuading hearts and minds in opening to LGBT people, and not only in the U.S. but globally."
Prior to his papacy, in Argentina, Bergoglio called gay marriage "a destructive attack on God's plan." He also said that adoption by gay parents would "seriously damage the family." But according to Sergio Rubin, his biographer, even though Bergoglio was against same-sex marriage, he was in favor of same-sex civil unions. Theologian Marcelo Marquez, a gay rights leader, confirmed this to the New York Times.
In an interview with Corriere della Sera, Francis affirmed Church teaching on marriage — "Marriage is between a man and a woman," he said — but also acknowledged the reality of the need that exists for secular states to "regulate economic aspects between persons, such as ensuring healthcare."
What is Francis' attitude toward capitalism?
In a speech last year, Francis spoke out against the "cult of money," which he described as a financial "imbalance" resulting from "the absolute autonomy of markets." "While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially," he said, "that of the majority is crumbling." Acknowledging his responsibility to love the rich and poor alike, Francis sees it as his "duty, in Christ's name, to remind the rich to help the poor." To this end, Francis has called for financial reforms at individual, clerical, and governmental levels.
Francis' first major writing as pope also contained a critique of the global economy: "Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"
These and similar comments have earned Francis harsh criticism, most notably from Rush Limbaugh, who accused the Pope of sounding like a Marxist. Francis responded by saying that Marxism is "wrong," but he wasn't offended. He then reiterated his critique of "trickle-down economics."
What are Francis' views on the environment?
Since his appointment as Pope, Francis has "frequently shown concern for the environment," according to the National Catholic Register. His choice of "Francis" for his papal name might signify his interests in environmentalism, as St. Francis — the patron saint of animals and ecology — is remembered for preaching to birds and caring for nature.
In his inaugural mass, Pope Francis implored Catholics to be protectors of "the beauty of the created world." In an address two months later on World Environment Day, Francis urged his listeners to cultivate and care for creation, and to make it a "habitable place for everyone."
On January 24, 2014, Fr. Frederico Lombardi, Director of the Holy See Press Office, announced that Francis "has begun work on a draft text on the topic of ecology, which could become an encyclical." Lombardi insisted the draft was at an early stage, and so he was unable to give a timeframe to publication. The forthcoming work, said Lombardi, would place particular emphasis on "human ecology" — the interrelationships of humans and their environments.
On May 2, 2014, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences — which is an international scientific academy housed in the Vatican — kicked off a five-day conference titled Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility. Over 40 academics from various disciplines are expected to attend the conference, the theme of which is to explore the relationship of humanity and nature. Those involved will discuss various ways in which nature both satisfies and fails to satisfy human needs for food, health, and energy.
Why doesn't Francis rock the traditional Pope clothes and car?
Francis has said his choice to downgrade his papal gear is the result of a "spiritual discernment that responds to a need that arises from looking at things." In other words, his sensitivity to the fact that so many people live in poverty has caused him to be more frugal than his predecessors. Francis has stated his desire to have "a church that is poor, and for the poor." His aesthetics of frugality ought to be seen as small-scale signals of the financial reform he wishes to initiate throughout the Church at large.
And Francis has taken larger-scale steps toward financial restraint. Although the Catholic Church has often been accused of financial corruption throughout its history, the VatiLeaks scandal that broke in January 2012 took the accusations to a new level. The Catholic Church manages more than $6 billion in assets. Much of that money is managed in the Instituo per le Opere di Religione (IOR), commonly called the Vatican Bank, which is known as the most secret bank in the world. Francis has made some big changes to the IOR. First, he fired the bank's longtime director. Then, he replaced four of the five board members overseeing the bank. But despite speculation that Francis was going to close it down, the Vatican announced in April that the IOR would remain open.
When reports circulated that the German "Bishop of Bling" spent $43 million on home and church renovations, Francis suspended him pending an official church inquiry. (Francis later accepted the Bishop's formal resignation on March 26, 2014.)
Has Francis made any doctrinal changes to Catholicism?
As Francis has made clear, he considers himself a "son of the Church." That means that, although he continues to soften the papal tone established by his predecessor, he has no plans to change any doctrine where "the teaching of the church ... is clear."
One comment Francis made in an interview for America is important here. He said that although "many think changes and reforms can take place in a short period of time," he cautions that that "real, effective change" takes time. So while he hasn't made any doctrinal changes yet, the shifts in tone he has made may actually be his way of laying the groundwork for later changes.
At the same time, it's important to note that a strict dichotomy between style and substance isn't clear within Catholic theology. It's possible to communicate the substance of the Gospel through subtle gestures and words. Though Francis' gestures — washing women's feet, kissing a disfigured man — are unaccompanied by commentary, there is a theological depth to them shouldn't go unnoticed.
Who are Francis' critics?
Rush Limbaugh doesn't care for Francis' critique of the global economy, which the Pope called an "economy of exclusion and inequality." Limbaugh called that "pure Marxism." Ken Langone, founder of Home Depot, doesn't like Francis' critique of wealth, either. Langone told Cardinal Timothy Dolan that Francis needs to "be careful about generalities." The Jewish Press called out Francis for his comment that Jews are the "big brothers" of Catholics — a comment which they interpreted as an "ideological attack on Jews ... as evil."
There is also a more traditional segment of the Church that is extremely critical of Francis. Charles Caput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, said he was "disappointed" that Francis hasn't spoken much about abortion. Francis confirmed this and other behind-the-scenes criticism when he said he was "reprimanded" for not talking enough about gay marriage, abortion, and contraception.
Some traditional Catholics are also attached to the the idea of conducting Church services in Latin. They see Francis' less formal style as a threat to the the Latin liturgy — the words and rituals customarily used for public worship services. Francis isn't opposed to traditional liturgy — it's just not the priority of his papacy. "The Church," said Francis, "sometimes has locked itself up in ... small-minded rules." Rather than get locked up in debates over which language is the best for saying Mass, Francis prefers the Church's pastoral ministry focus on mercy.
Is Francis inspiring more people to go to church?
According to a February 2014 Pew poll, more than 8 in 10 Catholics have a "favorable view" of Francis. Additionally, 7 in 10 Catholics — and 56% of non-Catholics — believe "Francis represents a major change in direction for the Catholic Church." Some have dubbed the recent surge in papal popularity the "Pope Francis Effect." But while church attendance in Italy and the UK is up among Catholics, the February Pew poll shows that in the US, there's been "no measurable rise" either in Catholic converts or church attendance. (These findings echo a similar poll conducted in October 2013.)
Francis is sometimes associated with "liberation theology." What is that?
In the 1950s and ‘60s, a new way of doing theology began to develop in Latin America. Taking as its starting point the experience of the poor, this new theology interpreted Scripture through the lens of poverty.
In 1968, a meeting of the Second Latin American Bishops Conference at Medellin, Colombia proved pivotal to the increasing momentum of the movement. After the conference, the bishops published a collection of documents — Justice, Peace, and Poverty — that outlined for the first time the major themes of Liberation Theology. One of the most important concepts institutionalized at Medellin was the phrase "the preferential option for the poor," which is the belief that the commandments of God and Jesus give preference to society's poorest members. Several years later, a Peruvian priest named Gustavo Gutierrez wrote a book called A Theology of Liberation, expounding on themes from Medellin.
Though it's never been condemned by the Church, liberation theology has remained a fringe movement. Before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger issued official critiques of liberation theology in 1984 and 1986. Ratzinger's main objection was that some theologies in the movement were utilizing Marxist class analysis, which is a philosophy Catholicism rejects. There was also a concern in Rome that certain priests were advocating violence - they weren't. Some of them, though, were sympathetic to certain movements that sought to overthrow the power structures of the ruling elite. Rome also felt that liberation theology put too much emphasis on sin as a social condition, and too little emphasis on sin as an individual spiritual state.
Since Francis is the first pope from Latin America, some have speculated that the Church is entering a new era of openness to liberation theology. Francis invited Gutierrez to the Vatican last September for a private meeting, which many took as a symbolic gesture that liberation theology was now welcome in Rome. Francis is also friendly to the idea of a "decentralization" of the Church, which is a concept articulated early on in the liberation movement.
To be clear, Francis has never fully endorsed liberation theology. In the book El Jesuita, Bergoglio said that there are both pros and cons to it. And according to Jesuit Thomas Reese, "Bergoglio, like Pope John Paul II, had serious reservations about liberation theology."
There's been some talk about Bergoglio's activities during the Dirty War. What exactly happened?
Beginning in May 1976, the military junta ruling Argentina began arresting left-leaning individuals with the intention of purging Argentina of communists and other subversives. This purge, which lasted from 1976 to 1983, is known as the Dirty War.
The main accusation against Bergoglio is that during this time, he was involved with the arrest and torture of two left-leaning Jesuit priests named Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics. According to James Carroll's New Yorker profile on Pope Francis, the two priests "embraced a profound solidarity with the poor," which earned them the suspicion of the military junta. Francis tried to rein in the priests, and when they continued to disobey his orders, he threatened them with expulsion.
Yorio and Jalics were eventually arrested. Since their brush with Bergoglio happened around the same time, the two Jesuits thought he had betrayed them to the military. However, Francis denies the accusation, saying that he "set the ball rolling" to ensure their release "the very night" of the arrest. Whatever happened behind the scenes, the fact remains that the two priests were eventually released after five months of torture. Yorio died in 2000, convinced that Bergoglio was responsible for his arrest. Jalics, however, has since denied Francis' involvement with his and Yorio's arrest, saying his original assumption of Francis' complicity was "unfounded."
According to Andrew Sullivan, though the details remain murky, "it is fair to say that during this period, Bergoglio was no hero." Sullivan points to comments Francis made during his interview with America Magazine that suggest he regrets how he handled the ordeal: "My style of government at the beginning had many faults ... My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative." Whatever conspired privately between Bergoglio and the two Jesuit priests, Sullivan believes that his activity during the Dirty War was significant in transforming authoritarian Bergoglio into the humble Francis that he is today.
Is Francis the first Pope with a Twitter account?
No. Benedict was the first papal tweeter. During his reign, he sent out 39 tweets, the last of which was tweeted on Feb. 28, 2013, the official day of his resignation. When Francis took over the papacy, he also took over the @pontifex handle. (Pontifex means "bridge-builder" in Latin.) Benedict's coat of arms as well as his tweets were then removed from the @pontifex Twitter feed, but are still available to read in an archive at the Vatican.
You didn't answer my question!
This is very much a work in progress. It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge.
So if you have additional questions or comments or quibbles or complaints, send a note to Brandon Ambrosino: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you really want to know about Pope Francis, read his first apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel.
The interview that America published is especially insightful.
Andrew Sullivan has a terrific essay on Pope Francis available at The Dish.
For more information on liberation theology, read Notes for a Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez.
On Heaven and Earth is a collection of conversations between Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and highlights Francis' efforts at interfaith dialogue.
In general, Thomas Bokenkotter's A Concise History of the Catholic Church is a good place to start if you're interested in learning more about the history of Catholicism.
James Martin's book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything is a great introduction to Ignatian spirituality.