Who is Pope Francis? La Salle University religion professors paint a portrait [entry-title permalink="0"] By and

Who is Pope Francis?

The people’s pope. A practitioner of liberation theology. A man who embraces the poor, the imprisoned and others on the margins of society. A man who, despite the problems of the world, is joyful.

That’s the picture that emerges from interviews with professors in the Religion Department of La Salle University at 1900 West Olney Ave., one of Philadelphia’s three major Catholic universities.

“He is very much a people’s pope,” said department chair Maureen O’Connell, who will lead a university-sponsored “pilgrimage” down Broad Street on Sunday morning to the papal Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway later in the afternoon. “He tries to become accessible to the people unlike any other pope. Someone explained him in a way that I really liked: ‘He is human.’”

A Pope for all

Soft-spoken and charismatic, Francis seems to have lived up to his reputation as the people’s pope during his first trip to the United States. Over the past three days, he has drawn huge and adoring crowds, including both Catholics and non-Catholics, everywhere he’s gone in the two cities he has visited — Washington, D.C. and New York City. In Philadelphia, city officials are bracing for a crowd of a million people for Sunday’s outdoor Mass.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man who would become Pope Francis, was born in Argentina, the son of Italian immigrants, and rose to become archbishop of Buenos Aires. He is the first pope from South America, the continent where the movement for liberation theology was born. That movement, which came to the fore during the 1970s, calls on the Catholic church to embrace the poor and work for fundamental social change to eliminate poverty and the problems that stem from it.

“Incredibly inspiring…”

“I think it’s incredibly inspiring to see Pope Francis’ recent appreciation for liberation theology,” said La Salle religion professor Jack Downey, who has studied Francis as a liberation theologian. He said Francis was never a big proponent of liberation theology when he was making his way up the Catholic hierarchy in Argentina, but has embraced it in his recent public statements and in Laudato Si’, his path-breaking encyclical on the environment.

“Honestly, if he had been known as a strong liberation theologian earlier in his career, he probably wouldn’t have advanced as far as he has in the ecclesiastical hierarchy because of Roman Catholic liberation theology’s historically contentious relationship with the magisterium (the church’s authoritative teachings),” Downey said.

One key tenet of liberation theology is that the church should have “a preferential option for the poor.” And while the words have become a part of Catholic social teaching over the past four decades, Francis has taken them much more seriously than previous popes, according to La Salle religion professors.

Walking the talk

O’Connell believes this is because Francis is from the global South, where he took his ministry to the poor.

“He had spent a lot of his life as a priest, and as a bishop, among the really, really poor people in Argentina, and he is very aware of the stresses and the challenges,” O’Connell said. “He doesn’t just talk about those things [to achieve social justice], but he is doing those things and tries to model for Catholics all over the world.”

Offering an apology

In July, Francis offered up an official apology to one particular group of impoverished people — the indigenous people of the Americas whom the predominantly Catholic Spanish conquered and subjugated when they colonized the Americas.

“I thought his apology was a remarkable public statement, long overdue, and something that should be repeated at every possible occasion,” Downey said.  “The American Catholic narrative so often ignores our history as embedded within various colonial and imperial projects, which – intentionally or not – has brought unimaginable suffering to indigenous people over the years, and it’s something we’ve never taken adequate responsibility for.”

In reaching out to those on the margins of society, Francis is simply following in the footsteps of Jesus, O’Connell said. “We see Jesus as someone who brings people who are ostracized back into community,” she explained. “A Catholic approach to justice is this notion of solidarity and standing with the people who are marginalized.”

By working with the poor, Francis walks the talk, says Maureen O'Connell.

By working with the poor, Francis walks the talk, says Maureen O’Connell.

O’Connell noted that Francis has also spoken out on other controversial issues that previous  popes had side-stepped. He has sought absolution for women who have had abortions; wondered if he has a right to condemn homosexuality; and embraced prison reform to ease the transition from prison into the community. He has also called on the church to accept single mothers and women who have made the choice to abort their babies, asking the church to forgive them and welcome them back into the fold.

Some of the boldest words spoken by Francis so far are those published last spring in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Italian for Praise Be to You. The “you” in the title refers to the earth, which Francis regards as sacred. He believes that for people to flourish, the earth must also flourish. Both, he has written, are dependent on each other. Global warming, he asserts, is real and the actions of human beings – ranging from gas-guzzling cars to a throw-away culture – are to blame.

“The pope has made a very big contribution to the environmental movement,” O’Connell explained. “He has written a definitive teaching about the responsibility that all people of good will need to be concerned with the environment and care for it. He is the first pope to devote an entire encyclical to that. Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II had both alluded to the environment, but had not said anything as explicit or thorough as this pope.”

O’Connell also credited Francis with “changing the conversation” about the criminal justice system and the need for the community to be more welcoming toward prisoners who have served their time and who are trying to re-enter society. “After jail, these men and women are viewed as outsiders in the community,” she said.

Ironically, O’Connell noted, Francis stands out so much from past popes not because he has new and radical ideas but rather because he is bringing back traditional ideas that go to the core of Catholic social teaching. “One of the biggest reasons that this pope is just so different is because he is someone who is consistent with the very central idea in the Catholic tradition about what social justice is,” she said.

Franciscan spirit

The Rev. Francis Berna, a Catholic priest and La Salle religion professor who teaches about classical and contemporary spirituality, said the pope also reflected the spirit of his namesake – St. Francis of Assisi.

The Rev. Frank Berna says the pope reflects the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi.

The Rev. Frank Berna says the pope reflects the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi.

“With the increasing divide between the very rich and the very poor, the middle class is diminishing,” Berna said. “There isn’t a way for many people to work and pay the bills. For somebody (like Pope Francis) to say, ‘We have to look at this, there has to be a better way,’ that was the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi.”

In line with the teachings of Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis ends Laudato Si’ with a verbal ode to joy – a discussion of the “deep enjoyment” that comes from stepping outside the consumer culture and simplifying one’s life. Instead of a “limitless mastery” of the earth, the pope calls for a “healthy humility.”

That, said Berna, is very Franciscan: “You live with an attitude of gratitude.”

(Mike Catalino, La Salle ’17, contributed to this article.)