If there’s one thing that many people associate with Pope Francis, it is the capacity of his words to stoke controversy, sometimes over settled matters of church doctrine. Often, the media puts something out there in the public about what the Pope is said to have said, which ends up generating heated debate in several camps. Many Catholics get really worried. Some accuse him of being a liberal; others go as far as uncharitably saying he’s an anti-pope. Most times, he’s misunderstood; other times his words are taken out of context. And then there’s a frenzy about whether he is right or wrong. But why are things this way? Why is the Pope so misunderstood? Why his statements are often misinterpreted? Why is there a bit of vagueness sometimes around what he says? In this article I try to explain a few things.
Unlike his two immediate predecessors (John Paul II and Benedict XVI), Pope Francis doesn’t have a doctorate degree in either philosophy or theology. As a Jesuit, outside his formative studies in philosophy and theology before his ordination in 1969, he did graduate studies in chemistry, but he also has a Licentiate in philosophy. Anyone who has followed him closely knows that he’s an intelligent thinker whose arc touches three poles: a particular tradition of European philosophy, Ignatian spirituality, and liberation theology.
When John Paul II became Pope in 1978, he was already fairly well known in European circles. He had earned a PhD in Theology in Rome and another in Philosophical Ethics at Krakow, creating a niche for himself as a promising scholar on the thoughts of St. John of the Cross and Max Scheler. He had also served as professor of moral theology and ethics at Krakow and Lublin, written a few works, with a very brilliant priestly and episcopal ministry. Many in Eastern Europe were familiar with his ideas, but also his family upbringing, his studies, his concerns, and his general frame of mind on social, political, cultural, and moral issues.
Pope Benedict XVI was also very well-known as a great theologian. He was ordained at 24, earned his PhD in Theology at 26 and became a professor of theology at Freising at 29. He then went ahead to teach in four German universities from 1959 until he was plucked from the academia in 1977 to become the archbishop of Munich and Freising at age 50. He was a frontline theologian at Vatican II. By the time he was called in 1981 by Pope John Paul II to head the church’s doctrinal office in Rome, he was already a theological powerhouse of sort in European circles, and had published many books. For 24 years he held fort as the church’s doctrinal chief and kept writing and publishing materials, such that at the time he became pope in 2005, he had no less than 50 books to his name and a reputation that went far ahead of him.
Then comes in Pope Francis. It is said that in the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict XVI, Jorge Cardinal Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, was the runner-up. There is no way to verify this. This is what journalists say. As you know what transpires during the conclave is a matter covered by the seal of silence. By 2013, following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, perhaps only a few were looking the way of Cardinal Bergoglio. He was already 76, living on one lung, and should have retired as archbishop of Buenos Aires a year earlier. He had turned in his letter of retirement but Benedict XVI had not yet accepted it. In the list of possible candidates to be elected pope which journalists often bandy around before a conclave begins, Bergoglio’s name was not there. They thought his time had passed. But on March 13, 2013 we hear those eternal words, “Habemus papam!” and the shy man that appears on the loggia of St Peter before the whole world is the man no one really thought about. Many were astounded!
After his election, Pope Francis narrated how we came about the choice of his papal name, being the first pope in the 2000-year history of the Catholic Church to bear that name. Surely, almost everyone now knows how much St. Francis of Assisi inspires the life, style, and thinking of Pope Francis. But it would be mistaken to locate him within that limited vision. There’s much more about Pope Francis than Francis of Assisi.
Before he became Pope, he had earned a reputation for his care for the poor, his simplicity of life, and humble service and his sensitivity to marginalized folks: the poor, the sick, widows, orphans, prisoners, immigrants, and people living with HIV/disabilities. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was a man of enormous influence in Argentina. He led a diocese with over 3 million Catholics and had six auxiliary bishops working with him. He was also widely considered a deep thinker and had earned the high respects of his colleagues in Latin America when he spearheaded the draft of a major church document on reform and renewal. He was in touch with the social and cultural realities of the time. Whenever he spoke at the meeting of cardinals, he won great admiration for his deep insights. It was no surprise therefore that on the third round of ballot in 2013 he emerged as Pope – a sign of confidence among the cardinals in his capacity to lead the church. Unlike Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) who had served in Rome for nearly 25 years before his election, Bergoglio was a diocesan bishop and came from the southern “peripheries.” It is said that the Cardinals wanted a pastor who could inject fresh blood into the veins of the church in the 21st century.
But what was it really about Francis? What’s his pedigree? Who are those who have influenced him? What thinkers have shaped his ideas? These are the questions that help us get into the mind of the Pope. When people say that it is because Francis is not a theologian that is why he is this or that way, they betray a total lack of understanding about the man, about where he’s coming from and about the ideas that capture his imagination. If they have read a book or two about the Pope, they’d probably think differently. There are a number of books that have traced the development of his thought. But the most comprehensive so far is the one by the Italian professor of philosophy Massimo Borghesi titled, The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey (2019).
Watch out for part 2 where Fr Ojeifo will focus on the ideas and thinkers that have shaped the mind of the Pope. That’s actually the heart of his reflection.
Fr Ojeifo is a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja Nigeria and currently a Ph.D student of the Notre Dame University.