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Carl E. Olson | author
May 02, 2014
Filed under Columns

The Francis revolution

Carl Olsen writes that most people are mischaracterizing Pope Francis’ intentions . . .

Carl E. Olson

Carl E. Olson

There has been much talk in the past year about “the Francis revolution,” with commentators of widely varying perspectives trying to pin down the exact nature of this “revolution.”

Some say it flows from the Holy Father’s humility and modesty. A July 2013 Vatican Insider article, for example, declared: “The Francis revolution: No flattery, no valets, no pomp, no ceremony.” Others point to his concern for the poor, outcast and forgotten. One commentator wrote recently that “the broad outlines of the Francis revolution seem reasonably clear — a church more focused on mercy than on judgment, a political stance closer to the center.”

This is all well and good, but some perspective is in order. Has no previous pope demonstrated humility, concern for the poor, and an apolitical approach to world affairs? And are these actions and concerns more revolutionary than, say, John XXIII convening Vatican II, Paul VI writing Humanae Vitae, John Paul II producing his theology of the body, or Benedict XVI liberating the extraordinary form of the Mass?

Such context is necessary because some emphasize what supposedly distances Francis from his predecessors, especially Benedict. This approach, which dominates the mainstream media, constructs a “good pope/bad pope” narrative that is clumsy and crude, but also effective. It’s widely accepted, in forms blatant and less obvious, despite mischaracterizing Benedict, Francis, and the nature of Christian revolution. But perhaps that’s the point.

Some present “the Francis revolution” as a political or corrective movement, while others see it as a move to overturn Church teaching on sexuality and related matters. Still others voice vague hope it means the Church will ride the enlightened waves of “history” and “progress.” All three, of course, have points of commonality, and I think it is fair to describe this viewpoint as secularist, even when voiced by Catholics.

But what does Francis say about revolution? He has used the word a handful of times, and three of those instances stand out. On June 17, 2013, Francis spoke of the sacrament of Baptism as “a revolution.”

“There have been so many revolutionaries in history,” he said. “Yet none of them have had the force of this revolution which brought Jesus to us: a revolution to transform history, a revolution that changes the human heart in depth. The revolutions of history have changed political and economic systems, but none has really changed the human heart. True revolution, the revolution that radically transforms life, was brought about by Jesus Christ through his resurrection.

“In this day and age, unless Christians are revolutionaries, they are not Christians. They must be revolutionaries through grace! Grace itself, which the Father gives us through the crucified, dead and risen Jesus Christ makes us revolutionaries.”

The following month, while in Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day, Francis exhorted the youth to “put on Christ” and trust him. “You see how faith accomplishes a revolution in us, one which we can call Copernican; it removes us from the center and puts God at the center; faith immerses us in his love and gives us security, strength, and hope,” he said. “Dear friends, faith is revolutionary and today I ask you: Are you open to entering into this revolutionary wave of faith?”

Then, in the apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Francis spoke of how the Gospel transforms our relationships. “True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.”

The Francis revolution is simply being a radical disciple of Jesus Christ. The Holy Father exhibits this in a singular fashion, for each Christian is given specific gifts and charisms. Many of Francis’ gifts have captured imaginations; many of his words have touched hearts and minds. Yet Francis is simply proclaiming the Gospel, announcing that God is love and Christ is the door to eternal life — just like previous popes.

“True revolution,” Benedict said at World Youth Day 2005, “consists in simply turning to God who is the measure of what is right and who at the same time is everlasting love. And what could ever save us apart from love?”

That true revolution is ever new and ever ancient, as Chesterton explained: “For the orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration.”

CARL E. OLSON is the editor of and Catholic World Report.


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