Is the Pope a Catholic?

A Talk on Pope Francis by Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB

Part 1:



I want to speak about Pope Francis. Actually, I want to speak up for Pope Francis, and I’d like to ease the difficulties some have with him. Hence this reflection. For some – in the Church, I mean – he is just occasionally baffling or disconcerting. Others feel ill at ease, others disturbed. Some clench their teeth, bite their lips and just keep quiet. Others are vocal and vehement. That’s more or less the range. Of course for many, he’s just the Pope and that’s fine.  And for many too, he’s an inspiration. But, there is an issue…

We are not required to be papal fanatics. We are not forbidden to have reservations. We’re not constrained to share every priority, rise to every emphasis or warm to the style. I’m not advocating unbridled enthusiasm. If possible, I’d just like to ease a burden some are carrying, to diminish an unhappiness. In this realm, it’s not helpful to be disaffected. Not helpful, I mean, for our Christian and Catholic life. I’m not attempting here to answer every question or rebut every charge. I just want to suggest another approach.

In the 2nd Eucharistic Prayer a passage runs: “Remember, Lord, your Church, spread throughout the world, and bring her to the fullness of charity, together with Francis our Pope, and N. our bishop, and all the clergy”. “Together with”, “una cum” in Latin; communion in theology; “being of the same mind, having the same love” in St Paul (Phil 2:2). There’s a spiritual tradition which speaks of sentire cum Ecclesia and so cum Papa. There’s no need to overegg this, but neither to exclude it. It’s a translation into our Christian subjectivity of a revealed objectivity, of a given: namely, the mission conferred by the Lord on Peter and transmitted to his successors; the mission of the professor of faith, the rock, the keeper of the keys, the confirmer of the brethren, the shepherd of the sheep; the mission of visible head; the mission of being the principle and foundation of unity. It is sad if we have to bracket that off and live our Catholic life etsi Papa non daretur (“as if there were no Pope”), minimalistically.

So, a word on behalf of Pope Francis.


On the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus met the risen Lord and became Paul the Apostle. “God revealed his Son in me” (Gal 1:16). That occurred probably around 34/35 AD, a very few years after Christ’s death and resurrection. He then went off, he says, to Arabia, and for three years. Then he came back to Damascus. Then, he went up to Jerusalem for a fortnight to “visit Cephas”, that is, Simon Peter. He had, as it were, tpo check in. He went, he says, to “visit” him. The word means to visit in order to see, as one might visit a famous city to see it, says St John Chrysostom. If used of a person, it means to and see them in order to get to know them, to learn about them. Paul went to Jerusalem to “learn” Peter.

St John Paul II, in turn, used to say that we have to “learn the Pope”. This is a way to the “una cum”, “together with”.

Here’s another preliminary: “Blessed are you, Simon bar-Jona…and you are Peter”, Jesus famously says. Giuseppe Roncalli became John XXIII, Giovanni Battista Montini Paul VI, Karol Wojtyla John Paul II, and Jorge Bergoglio Francis. A human being – with his personal name, an individuality, a biography, and with a family name, that is, with a family story, a nationality, a history – is chosen Pope, accepts, takes a new name and is taken up into what has been called “the mystery of Peter” – a mystery which is a mixture of weakness and strength, limit and grace. A taking up that doesn’t end on the balcony of St Peter’s with the cry Habemus Papam but continues through the years that follow. A process of a fellow-Christian responding to a more than human, impossible mission and who surely deserves, from his fellow-sinners, a hermeneutic of sympathy, a willingness to interpret benevolently, an accompaniment of prayer, a readiness to “learn”.

Most of us listening to this, given our own very different backgrounds, should surely expect to be taken aback, wrong-footed, left scratching our heads by a Latin American, Argentinian Jesuit: a man whose parents were Italian immigrants and whose family not without conflicts, who has lived through a dictatorship and a dirty war, the post-conciliar upheavals of the Society of Jesus and the controversies of liberation theology, who has had extensive pastoral experience of situations outside our ken and people of a different culture than ours, and who at the age of 76 has been abruptly translated onto a world stage. He will be different. We might at least be curious as to what he might bring, what fresh air may follow him from Buenos Aires, what opportunities he might present for realising that the one faith allows of many perspectives, and that the Church’s universality might entail an enriching exchange of gifts. There might be much learning to do.


I have met him, to be precise on 27 September 2018. I met him along with the other seven bishops of Scotland, and two of our secretariat. We were on what is called an Ad Limina visit to Rome, when every so many years bishops go to Rome “to visit Peter” and the departments of the Holy See, and to render an account of their ministry. A meeting with the Pope is part of it. We met him as a group in one of the rooms in the Vatican. There was him and a translator and us. We were with him for 1 hour and 40 minutes. It was pleasantly informal. It was a free-flowing conversation. We put questions and made comments. He responded. He livened visibly as the meeting went on. There was seriousness and humour. We came out joyful. But the real thing was deeper. Forgive the cliché, but it really was as though we were the only people who mattered. Consider the circumstances. Before we went in, I noticed the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith coming out. They would not have been talking about the weather. About 36 hours before, the Pope had returned from a 3-day visit to the Baltic States. The same afternoon there was some major celebration for him to lead – I forget what. This was an 81 year-old man. What he conveyed was not exhaustion or a going through the motions; rather, supernatural peace and total dedication to the Church. One felt a presence.

So first I would speak up for him as a man of God. In one of his early interviews, he was asked, Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio? After a pause, he famously replied, “A sinner whom the Lord has looked upon”. This remark harks back sixty years to 21 September, St Matthew’s day, 1953, when “something happened” to him in the confessional of a church in Buenos Aires – he was 16 – and he realised he was called to the priesthood. In the Gospel for St Matthew’s day (Mt 9:9ff), Jesus “saw” / looked on tax-collector, a “sinner” and called him to follow him. Later Bergoglio would become aware of the commentary of St Bede the Venerable on that Gospel, and his words: Jesus “saw him, not so much with his bodily eyes, as with the look of inner compassion. He saw the tax-collector, and because he looked at him with mercy and chose him (miserando et eligendo), he said “Follow me””. Those words miserando et eligendo – “having mercy and choosing” – Bergoglio later took as his episcopal motto. The last strand in this story is the dramatic painting by Caravaggio of The Call of Matthew, found in the church of St Louis of the French in Rome and which, before he was Pope, Bergoglio would regularly visit when he came to Rome. Here’s the core of his self-understanding: a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon, a sinner aware of being “mercied” and chosen by grace. Pope Francis is, first and foremost, a spiritual and evangelical man, someone looked at, touched by the Lord. Everything else has unfolded from this. He became a Jesuit, which gave flesh and companionship to this call.  It gave him the formation of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, the purpose of which is help someone discern the will of God in their lives and commit to follow Christ whatever the cost. And so, through all the mutations and missions of his life, as Jesuit Provincial, Rector of a College, as set aside, then appointed an auxiliary bishop, then Archbishop of Buenos Aires and so on, there is a single source and centre, the Call of Christ. “I am sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” As for his normal daily routine, he rises around 4.30 am and spends the next two hours praying the Office, meditating, reading the Scripture of the day before saying Mass at 7am. Inspired by John Paul II, he took up saying the whole Rosary, 15 decades anyway, every day, and if he can includes an hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.

So there’s the first thing. Pope Francis is a man with a strong personal relationship to Christ. He is a man who has weathered many difficult passages in his life, physically, emotionally, socially, but has hung on. He has mellowed, he has grown, and he has persevered. He has heard the “Follow me” and been faithful. This must be acknowledged.

The other thing that shone out for me at our meeting was his love for the Church and his sense of people.

As a young man, he said he wanted to join the Jesuits “because I’m not going to be a priest in a basilica. I’m going to be a Jesuit, because I’m going to want to go out to the neighbourhoods, to the villas, to be with people” (Ivereigh, The Great Reformer, p.36). This, after Jesus, is his other passion.  He is a “people person”. He is a constant advocate and defender of los descardos, the marginal, vulnerable, migrants, prisoners, the elderly, the unborn, and he verifies his words by actions (e.g. migrants from Lesbos, response to Rohingya; Friday visits during Holy Year). He can be singeing about sin, especially what he calls “corruption”, that is embedded sin. He is actually the fiercest of recent Popes. But he is no misanthrope. Reaching out is his standard response. In the phrase he has made famous, he loves “to get the smell of the sheep”. He feels any failure to do so acutely.

One story indicates this. In his childhood, there was a working woman who came in twice a week to help his mother. They lost touch. Years later, when he was a prominent Jesuit in a big institution, he was told that she was at the door to see him. He was busy and preoccupied. He sent a note asking her to come back tomorrow. She didn’t. A few weeks later, a strong sense of guilt came over him. He began to pray for her. The episode stuck with him for 25 years. Then he heard news of her. The truth was she hadn’t come back that morning because she was returning to Italy. She had come to say goodbye. Things hadn’t worked out in Italy, and later she returned to Argentina. In 2006 they were able to meet up again. What strikes me is what he said: “It was the happiest day of my life.” She was now an old lady. She gave him a medal she wore round her neck; he still wears it (Ivereigh, GR, pp.336-7). He felt bad for 25 years for having asked someone to come back the following day. Let me go to the other end of the scale. In an interview (published on 24 August 2016), Pope Benedict XVI spoke of Francis’ personal kindness to him. “He has given me the gift of a marvellous fatherly-brotherly relationship. Often little gifts arrive up here, letters that were written personally. Before setting out on long journeys, the Pope never fails to pay me a visit. The human kindness with which he treats me is for me a special grace of this final phase of my life, for which I can only be grateful. Words alone are not proof of availability to others. He puts it into practice with me” (E. Guerriero, Pope Benedict XVI, p. 667). And on one occasion, one of his priestly jubilees, 28 June 2016, Benedict said a lovely thing to Francis: “My true home is your goodness. There I feel safe” (Guerriero, p. 658).

I don’t mention this so that we all bring out our handkerchiefs, touching as these stories are. I’m just trying to help us “learn” him, get inside him and glimpse what makes him tick; what forms his vision of the Church as “a mother with an open heart”, as a “field-hospital”; what irks him about a self-congratulating, self-preoccupied Church; what gives him, for example, his sensitivity as regards migrants, to the victims of natural disasters, to the people whose lives are run over by the money-making juggernauts, by the effect on the poor of ecological devastation. He’s not someone driven by “isms”. A socio-political interpretation breaks down. He lives from other sources.

Part 2:


Let me move on to some other thoughts.

Perhaps there are three biographical keys to Pope Francis. One is his Latin American identity. It gives him such things as a spontaneous faith and warmth, a deeply-rooted Catholicism, a sense of people and “the people”, especially the poor, of the symbiosis of faith and culture, as well as a social and political sensitivity. A second key, surely, is his Jesuit identity. This gives him a strong Christocentricity, the notion of discernment, an orientation to decision, action, mission, to the individual and his or her personal path.  A third key is his experience of collaboration (collegiality) as a leading Latin American bishop, especially at the 5th General Assembly of the Latin American bishops held at the Marian shrine of Aparecida in Brazil in 2007, and the document it produced: a pastoral blueprint for the Church in Latin America.

All of this has run on into his pontificate. As Karol Wojtyla’s personality and experience and formation flowed into his Papacy, so does Jorge Bergoglio’s. Every Peter includes a Simon.

He belongs to a philosophical-theological current of Catholic thought that favours dialectic thinking, not of the either/or but of the both/and kind. He thinks in complementary opposites, in a bi-polar way, seeking reconciliation neither in elimination of one of the poles or in a compromise, but at a higher, supernatural level, in Christ. Many misinterpretations of his mind spring from missing this. In his teaching on married love in Amoris Laetitia, for example, he simultaneously combines the classical teaching of the Church on marriage as an indissoluble, lifelong union of a man and a woman, open to life, with a clear-eyed recognition of life’s complexities and an insistence on merciful pastoral accompaniment of those in irregular situations. What holds these two together and prevents them degenerating into black and white alternatives (the doctrinal versus the pastoral) is the summons to conversion, discipleship and holiness in view of the fullness of eschatological communion. Even his recent remarks on civil partnerships follow this pattern. He can describe same-sex marriage as an unacceptable incongruity and declare homosexual acts illicit, yet simultaneously call for acceptance at a family level of gay members and, in reference to debates in Argentina before he was Pope, also envisage the possibility of some legal systems allowing couples of the same sex, independently of the question of sexual relations, access to the legal protection civil partnerships can provide, for example in health care and inheritance. Or to take more familiar, less subtle examples, he can simultaneously call to evangelisation and warn against proselytism, can advocate the quest for holiness and full-blooded social engagement, can be clear that Christ is the fullness of truth and grace and yet seek common ground with Muslims. It is not a matter of oppositions, but complementary opposites; not of contradictions but of contrasts harmonised by a Christian vision which is not monocular.

I am not going to parse my way through every controversy, every controversial off-the-cuff remark, “who am I to judge?”, Pachamama and all the rest. There’s no need to defend every action and gesture and statement. I will say, though, and forthrightly, that suggestions that this Pope espouses heresy are awry. He is, and he intends to be, an orthodox Catholic. He is, as he says, a “son of the Church”. Neither is he a moral relativist. To take terms from the history of moral theology, he is neither a rigorist nor a laxist, neither an “objectivist” nor “subjectivist”. He holds the poles in tension, once again. Nor is he some kind of intellectual gaucho who makes things up as he goes along, nor a leftover hangover from liberation theology. He’s possessed of a serious spiritual, literary, philosophical and theological formation.

He is misread on the left and the right. Why do we, positively or negatively, so often prefer half a Pope?

What is he then? He is a man of clear priorities. Let me name some: the mercy of God, the centrality of Christ, the primacy of the kerygma. He wants mission to prevail over self-preservation, love to be the primary law. He would have warmed to a phrase of my novice master, “Christianity is something you do”. “Christianity is meant above all to be put into practice” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 109).

He is a reformer. He does not want an introverted Church. He wants a “missionary conversion”. “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation” (Evangelii Gaudium, 27). This is not advocating a “new” Church, as some fear, but, vividly expressed, a renewal of the Church, precisely as Vatican II, John Paul II and Benedict XVI desired, a thorough transformation in view of the realisation of the Church’s final purpose, the salvation of souls. “If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life” (EG 49). He wants clergy, especially bishops and priests, to eschew clericalism and careerism, to come off all pedestals, to be close and connected to Christ to their people, with the smell of the sheep upon them and willing to touch the flesh of Christ in the wounded.

This is timely and refreshing and smacks of the Gospel.


And what has he done? He has been Pope now for 7½ years.

Undoubtedly, if he has bewildered some in the Church, he has still touched many within and without the Church. He has brought a freshness. He has spoken to the orbi as well as the Urbi, especially by gestures. He is listened to by unlikely people. He has conveyed Christian goodness.

As teacher of the faith, he has already delivered a substantial body of work. He has exercised papal magisterium and devoted his major writings to such subjects as faith (Fidei Lumen, 2013), evangelisation and mission (EG 2013), “care for our common home” (Laudato Si, 2015), marriage and the family (Amoris Laetitia, 2016), the pursuit of holiness (Gaudete et Exsultate, 2018), the role of young people (Christus Vivit, 2019), the situation in the Amazon (Querida Amazonia, 2020), and most recently universal human fraternity and social friendship (Fratelli Tutti, 2020).

If we want to learn him, I suggest especially Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si, Gaudete et Exsultate and now, Fratelli Tutti. In LS and FT he has added, in particular, to the social teaching of the Church and brought it into engagement with burning contemporary issues. He has thrown a bridge over the chasm between “Church teaching” and today’s reality.

He has a gift for touching contemporary sensitivities and issues and people, and at the same time for speaking in a decisively Christian way.

In the realm of Canon Law, he has also made a contribution: as regards, for example, women’s contemplative life, the authority of Bishops Conferences in liturgical matters, in responding to sexual abuse and cover-ups, and not least, in introducing the possibility of a briefer process of nullity.

Lastly, he has had an impact on the liturgy. He has opened the washing of the feet to all. He has enriched the yearly calendar, adding three Popes (John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II), making Mary, Mother of the Church, an obligatory memorial for the Monday after Pentecost, adding our Lady of Loreto to Advent and raising St Mary Magdalene to the level of a feast.  A senior official of the Congregation for Divine Worship has remarked that it is simply untrue that the Pope isn’t bothered about liturgy. Further, Pope Francis has beatified more than 1220 people and canonised about 900 (admittedly one group of 813). Among the former is the recently beatified Carlo Acutis, a 15 year old internet expert. Among the latter, three recent Popes, Oscar Romero, Teresa of Calcutta, the parents of St Therese, the children of Fatima. In 2015, he declared an Armenian poet, mystic and monk, St Gregory of Narek, a Doctor of the Church.

Admittedly, I am drawing up something of an inventory here. I am not, for example, exploring his teaching or legislative acts in depth. My point is other. Once again, if one stands back from these achievements, not getting lost in details, taking them in the round, not focussing on unfinished particulars, what does one “pick up”? I find it hard to read them as the actions of a sower of discord and a wrecker of the Church. They stand within the recent practice of the Papacy. They are in general substantive and positive. For me, they confirm Pope Leo the Great’s insight that, in the course of history, “blessed Peter has not abandoned the government of the Church”. Once more, I am not saying that one has to hail every one of them or that they are free of all blemish or ambiguity, or that every action of this pontificate is beyond reproach. Every Pope, like Simon Peter once again, is a mysterious blend of strength and weakness, of limit and grace. Every Pope misjudges, or misses opportunities, or because of events or the resistance and inertia of others, is simply unable to do all he could. “On earth, the broken arch.” One day indeed, Pope Francis will be in the past. There will be a sifting of what was of the moment and of what will last, of Simon Bar-Jona and Peter. And we will find ourselves “among new men, strange faces, other minds”, or hopefully preoccupied with eternity. But, as of now, it seems to me the jury is in rather than out. Taken in the round, as a whole, there is something solid, good, wholesome and Catholic being offered here in Pope Francis’ exercise of the Petrine, papal ministry. There is something worth learning, something of Christ, something of being a contemporary disciple and of how to be the Church in our troubled “now”. There is something worth living “together with”, realistically, confidently, gratefully, even joyfully.

Dare I say, dare I suggest, Pope Francis is a call to conversion?

“Let us pray for Francis, our Pope.

May the Lord preserve him, and give him life, and make him blessed upon the earth, and not deliver him up to the will of his enemies.” Amen.


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122