It is significant and unusual for a papal document to make secular news headlines, and is undoubted evidence that eight months after his surprise election, Pope Francis is an attractive and formidable world presence.
The new document, while a substantial fifty thousand words, is an easy read for anyone who has spent a couple of years at high school, and who sincerely seeks truth and beauty. That “seeking truth and beauty” point is important since many might begin to read, and quickly tire feeling discomfort at the pope’s challenges and his intimate way of focussing on Jesus Christ as the heart of all joyful and healthy human life. Before many blog readers were born, Pope John Paul’s first encyclical began with the same intimate emphasis: “Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history”. Redemptor Hominis 4 March 1979
Even those who never miss an opportunity to criticize popes seem to be struggling to find a negative slant for their comments about “the Joy of the Gospel”. This is not surprising since the pope provides his own robust critique of the world and the church, and he does not shy from explicit attacks on unjust and corrupt systems and structures both in the world and in the church. In short, Pope Francis does the work of his opponents for them.
Perhaps the greatest surprise in these pages is the seamless blend of the themes, styles and emphases of Benedict and Francis. The “Francis factor” is naturally evident in what one blogger calls his “now-familiar flashes of homespun language.” One example: “an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!” (par.10)
Another blogger is a bit shocked that Pope Francis strongly endorses Pope Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity.” Certainly both popes’ positions on key and controversial issues is clear and consistent.
At this eight-month anniversary of his election, Pope Francis seems to delight in claiming as his personal motto the words of Pope Benedict who eight months after his own election published the encyclical “God is Love.” (Christmas 2005) Pope Francis writes:
“I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”(par.7)
Wednesday of next week (4 December) is the 450th anniversary of the opening of the Council of Trent. Today “Trent” is commonly synonymous with with a fearful and defensive church. In these past eight months, we have witnessed Pope Francis actively breaking through fear with love, and setting aside defensiveness to welcome all people of good-will with open arms and affectionate and merciful embrace. His natural and extroverted manner gives the writings of his predecessor a new face, and so he presents a new and welcome face of the Church to the world.