Friday, September 27, 2013

Ten words for Pope Francis

Alejandro Bermudez and
Greg Burke discuss Pope Francis.
Greg Burke tried to describe Pope Francis in 10 words.

That’s quite a challenge after a journalist who had covered the pope during his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires,  Argentina had just finished describing him as “a complex personality.”

Alejandro Bermudez had interviewed then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio several times, had translated the then-cardinals in-depth conversations with the most prominent rabbi in Latin America (the book is called On Heaven and Earth) and had assembled interviews with some of those who knew Bergoglio best for a quick book after his election as pope (Pope Francis: Our Brother, Our Friend).

The occasion was a presentation to the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association in Austin, Texas. And Burke was tackling this as a former journalist for FOX News and TIME who in June of 2012, became the senior communications advisor in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.

He did allow as to how now that Francis was the pope, each day was a bit more unpredictable for the Vatican communications staff.

So his 10 words to describe Francis:

Mercy – He noted that over and over, Francis reminds people that “God doesn’t tire of offering mercy.”

Moxie – Another word for courage, Burke said. “We are all going to get challenged by Pope Francis, especially those who live comfortable lives in the First World. That’s a good thing.”

Margins – He talked about the pope constantly reaching out to the edges, a recurring theme of not getting closed in on one-self … and of the church not being so self-referential.

Prayer – Burke reminded people that the pope spends a lot of time in prayer and that he is open about his struggles with it … struggles just like other folks have. He told of workers in the building where the pope lives seeing him shuffle into the chapel in the middle of the afternoon, rustling around for his rosary beads just like any other old man. Later, he also noted a kind of “old-fashioned religion” that appeals to Francis reflecting the popular piety of Latin America where he grew up.

Encounter – This is a pope focused on engaging with the world’s many religious traditions, crossing the usual philosophical and national borders that separate people.

Joy – Burke acknowledged that John Paul II and Benedict talked about joy but said that Francis seems to be showing it in remarkable ways, even as he warns people to watch out for discouragement.

Proximity – One thing that has been clear over the past months is how much Francis likes to be physically close people. One of the most memorable phrases of these early months, Burke suggested, is that church leaders should “smell like the sheep” because they move so closely among them.

Simplicity – Lots has been written about Francis’ simple life style, his carrying his own briefcase, his paying his own bills. The message: It’s not about power and privilege, Burke said.

Humility – Burke recalled the moment when Francis was introduced to the world and he bowed and asked the crowd to pray for him. He noted the pope’s repeated references to himself as a sinner. And he said pointedly that Francis expects that of others in the church.

Compassion – He reaches out to embrace those who are suffering. At every audience, Burke said, Francis goes to those in wheelchairs, to those who are hurt and touches them.

A few other insights –

The pope’s extraordinarily popular tweets are drawn from his morning homilies and other writings. He signs off on each one before it is sent out.

Bermudez said that this is a man who has always been quotable because he shapes his messages in ways that there is a clear take-away with a quote that people can remember.

Bermudez earlier talked about the seeming obvious but deep impact on Francis both of being from Argentina and being a Jesuit. In Argentina, he said, there is a vibrant Catholicism with lively internal debate, lots of writers and historians and an excellence in canon law. And the Jesuit influence shaped his spirituality, his sense of going to the frontiers which in our era are the cultural margins and then making sure that what you do has results “for the greater glory of God.”

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