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Francis, Year One: Mercy, Encounter, Mission

 

Entre Amigos – Opinion/Commentary

March 20, 2014

By Mar Munoz-Visoso

Many are the analyses these days taking stock of Pope Francis' first year in office. As we celebrate the anniversary of the official beginning of his pontificate, I would like to add three words to the discourse, following Francis' pedagogical style. They are: mercy,encounter and mission.

I begin with mercy, a central theme in his teachings. In this first year Francis has repeated time and time again that God does not get tired of forgiving us, that we are the ones who get tired of asking for forgiveness. He has compared the Church to a field hospital that must welcome and tend to the wounded and the dying in the daily battlefield of life. He has told us that the Church must be like the merciful father's house in the Gospels, who gives his sons all that he has, and awaits tirelessly the return of the son who left, and runs to meet him on the road when he sees him coming home.

But where does Pope Francis get this special sensibility towards God's mercy? To really understand we must travel back to his childhood years, to "Colegio de la Misericordia" (Mercy School) in the Flores neighborhood in Buenos Aires, where Jorge Mario Bergoglio received his primary education. The school was run by religious sisters, the Daughters of Our Lady of Mercy, who seemingly did a very good job at embedding this notion of God as a merciful Father in little Jorge's mind and heart. His episcopal motto, miserando atque eligendo (looking at him with mercy he chose him), now part of his pontifical coat of arms, tells us that this well learned lesson has continued to accompany him in his adult life as a priest and bishop. It almost seems as if he wanted to make sure everyone understands that it is only by God's mercy that he is who he is and does what he does.

Secondly, I would like to highlight the culture of encounter to which he is calling all in the Church as well as in civil society. This goes well beyond a style or a personal preference. Granted, Cardinal Bergoglio did not like to be enclosed or isolated in an office or a palace. He has spent his life going out to encounter others, especially the poor and the needy—from whom he says we have much to learn— but also from the one who is or thinks different from him. He is convinced that only in this context of dialogue and personal encounter can minds and hearts be evangelized. Only thus can lasting peace and peaceful social coexistence be built up. The Church, he says, must be concerned with forming missionary disciples that go out to meet others.

It is true that as a member of a religious order, the Jesuits, he tends to always seek community, thus preferring the guest house to the apostolic palace. But he is also the product of a particular ecclesiological context in Latin America, where the Church, while hierarchical, has in general a much more communitarian and missionary character. Thus, the emphasis on process over events (and people over programs).

Finally, I would like to bring forth the theme of mission. In his apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis proposes to set the entire Church in missionary mode. We must rediscover mission as something essential to the life of the Church, of every Christian person and every Christian community. In this way, Francis extends to the universal church the work of the V General Meeting of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, who met in Aparecida, Brazil in 2007. He had a great influence in the drafting of the final document as head of the writing committee. Aparecida calls the Latin American Church to a change of mentality; to enter into a deep process of pastoral conversion. This renewal of the ecclesial communities and pastoral structures to find new paths for the transmission of the faith in Christ as the only source of a full and dignified life for all is the call that Francis makes now to the universal Church, starting with the Vatican.

Francis calls us all to a personal encounter with Christ. Such encounter produces a personal conversion that impels us to go out to meet others, an awareness that is incompatible with indifference and inaction, personal and communal, in the practice of mercy.

The merciful face of the Father has found an Apostle. In him, teaching and gesture come together; word and action go hand in hand. To follow him closely in this first year has been both exhilarating and exhausting. I cannot wait to see what Francis' second year will bring, but of this I am certain: his capacity to surprise seems inexhaustible.

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Mar Munoz-Visoso is executive director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.



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