GOING TO THE PERIPHERIES: Pope Francis’ focus throughout his 5-year pontificate has been on mercy and outreach

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope just a few days after telling the College of Cardinals that the Catholic Church faced a clear choice between being a Church that "goes out" or a Church focused on its internal affairs.

After the cardinal from Buenos Aires, Argentina, was elected March 13, 2013, and chose the name Francis, he made "go out," "periphery" and "throwaway culture" standard phrases in the papal vocabulary.

Catholics have a wide variety of opinions about how Pope Francis is exercising the papal ministry, and many of his comments — both in informal news conferences and in formal documents — have stirred controversy. But, as he wrote in "Evangelii Gaudium," the apostolic exhortation laying out the vision for his pontificate: "I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security."

But there are two areas of internal Church affairs that he recognized needed immediate attention: the reform of the Roman Curia and the full protection of children and vulnerable adults from clerical sexual abuse.

The organizational reform of the Curia has been taking place in stages, but Pope Francis has insisted that the real reform is a matter of changing hearts and embracing service.

On the issue of abuse, nine months into his pontificate, Pope Francis established the Pontifical Commission for Child Protection to advise him on better ways to prevent clerical sexual abuse and to ensure pastoral care for the survivors.

Pope Francis has emphatically proclaimed "zero tolerance" for abusers and recently said covering up abuse "is itself an abuse." However, as his fifth anniversary approached serious questions arose about how he handled accusations that Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, who was a priest at the time, covered up allegations of abuse against his mentor.

The new scandal threatened to undermine the widespread popularity of Pope Francis and his efforts to set the Catholic Church on a new course.

For Pope Francis, that new course involves evangelization first of all.

"Evangelizing presupposes a desire in the Church to come out of herself," he had told the cardinals just days before the conclave that elected him. "The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents and of all misery."

Mercy is the first thing the Catholic Church is called to bring to those peripheries, he says.

Although in 2013 he told reporters he would not be traveling as much as his predecessors, Pope Francis has continued their practice of literally "going out," making 22 trips outside of Italy and visiting 32 nations.

But he also regularly visits the peripheries of Rome, both its poor suburbs and its hospitals, rehabilitation centers, prisons and facilities for migrants and refugees.

His desire to reach out has inspired innovations that were noteworthy at the beginning of the papacy, but now seem to be a natural part of the papacy

On Holy Thursday each year, he has celebrated Mass at a prison, care facility or refugee center and washed the feet of patients, inmates or immigrants, both men and women, Catholics and members of other faiths.

During the 2015-16 Year of Mercy, he made a visit one Friday a month to people in particular need, including those at a school for the blind, a neonatal intensive care unit, a community of recovering alcoholics, a children's group home and a community for women rescued from traffickers who forced them into prostitution. Once the Year of Mercy ended, the pope continued the visits, although not always every month.

In September 2015 as waves of migrants and refugees were struggling and dying to reach Europe, Pope Francis asked every parish and religious community in Europe to consider offering hospitality to one family. The Vatican offered apartments and support to a family from Syria and a family from Eritrea. Then, seven months later, Pope Francis visited a refugee center on the island of Lesbos, Greece, and brought 12 refugees back to Rome on the plane with him.

Less than three months into his pontificate, he began denouncing the "throwaway culture" as one where money and power were the ultimate values and anything or anyone that did not advance money or power were disposable: "Human life, the person are no longer seen as primary values to be respected and protected, especially if they are poor or disabled, if they are not yet useful — like an unborn child — or are no longer useful — like an old person," the pope said at a general audience.

In the first three years of his papacy, he published three major documents: "Evangelii Gaudium" (The Joy of the Gospel); "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," on the environment; and "'Amoris Laetitia' (The Joy of Love), on Love in the Family," his reflections on the discussions of the Synod of Bishops in 2014 and 2015.

People skeptical about the scientific proof that human activity is contributing to climate change objected to parts of "Laudato Si'." This criticism was muted compared to strong reactions to Pope Francis' document on the family, especially regarding ministry to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics and the possibility that, under some conditions, some of those Catholics could return to the sacraments.

In the document and throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has emphasized God's mercy and the power of the sacraments to spur conversion and nourish Christians as they try to progress in holiness.

Like all popes, Pope Francis frequently urges Catholics to go to confession, telling them it isn't a "torture chamber." And he repeatedly gives priests blunt advice about being welcoming and merciful to those who approach the confessional.

Like St. John Paul did each Lent, Pope Francis hears confessions in St. Peter's Basilica. But, he surprised even his closest aides beginning in 2014 when, instead of going to the confessional to welcome the first penitent, he turned and went to confession himself. 

Wonder and wit: Five years of Pope Francis' unique turns of phrase

By Carol Glatz | Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — A native-Spanish speaker who grew up with Italian-speaking relatives in Argentina, Pope Francis has a striking way with words.

Bringing a background in literary themes and devices with him to the papacy five years ago, the pope has shown himself to be a master of metaphor and allegory.

His cross-cultural and eclectic knowledge of literature and cinema has supplied him with numerous visual elements that he mixes and matches with a religious message, creating such compound concoctions as "the babysitter church" to describe a parish that doesn't encourage active evangelizers but only worries about keeping parishioners inside, out of trouble.

He urges the world's priests to be "shepherds living with the smell of sheep" by living with and among the people in order to share Christ with them, and he tells his cardinals that all Catholic elders need to share with the young their insight and wisdom, which become like "fine wine that tastes better with age."

Some other sayings:

"When a calf is hungry it goes to the cow, its mother, to get milk. The cow, however, does not give it right away: it seems that she withholds it. And what does the calf do? It knocks with its nose at the cow's udder, so that the milk will come. It is a beautiful image! 'So also you must be with your pastors,' St. Caesarius of Arles said: always knock at their door, at their hearts, that they may give you the milk of doctrine, the milk of grace and the milk of guidance."

— Regina Caeli, May 11, 2014

"An unfettered pursuit of money rules. This is the 'dung of the devil,' The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people's decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home, sister and mother earth."

— Address to members of popular movements in Bolivia July 9, 2015

"I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else."

— Interview with Jesuit magazine, September 2013

"Vanity is like 'osteoporosis' of the soul: the bones look good from the outside, but on the inside they are ruined. ... Vanity leads us to fraud; as con artists mark cards in order to gain. This victory is false, it is not real. This is vanity: living to pretend, living to resemble, living to appear. And this unsettles the soul."

— Morning meditation at Domus Sanctae Marthae, Sept. 22, 2016

"There is also a 'spiritual Alzheimer's disease.' It consists in losing the memory of our personal 'salvation history,' our past history with the Lord and our 'first love' (Revelation 2:4). It involves a progressive decline in the spiritual faculties which in the long or short run greatly handicaps a person by making him incapable of doing anything on his own, living in a state of absolute dependence on his often imaginary perceptions."

— Address to the Roman Curia, Dec. 22, 2014 

U.S. lay Catholic leaders, activists still feel 'Francis effect'

By Mark Pattison | Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — As Pope Francis observes his fifth anniversary as the successor to St. Peter, the gifts and style he brings to the papacy are still felt strongly by American Catholics.

Catholic News Service asked a number of participants attending the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington in early February about the pope, who was elected March 13, 2013.

"The Francis effect — whoever coined that, it's been like a healing salve on a hurting Church," said Lynne Betts of Seaford, Del., one of two East regional leaders in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's Voice of the Poor program. "I don't want to sound cliche, but he's like a good parent who picks you up and dusts you off and says life is still good. He's been able to do that."

Sheila Herlihy, coordinator of justice and charity for the Church of the Incarnation in Charlottesville, Va., spoke of Pope Francis' call to service.

"I see this service-oriented approach that Pope Francis takes definitely inspires people and affirms people in their ministry," Herlihy said. "For me, it's a really great resource, because everyone really loves Pope Francis."

Jacqueline Moya, 19, a student at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., who is active in the school's ministry center working with Hispanic communities, said of the pope: "He's been wonderful and speaks a lot to millennials."

The pope has inspired Moya to remain active in the Church. "I feel like it would have been up in the air as far as being part of the Church," she said. "He speaks to me. ... It drew me closer to the Catholic Church. It brought me closer to my Catholic faith."

Many people interviewed at the social ministry conference — with follow-up telephone interviews to some of them — mentioned the idea of how Pope Francis challenges them, but in a way that makes them want to respond positively to the challenge.

"He's challenging me, too. Am I talking a good talk and not doing it?" Sloan said. "He challenges us to be better versions of ourselves as we do it with our lives," said Deacon Perry Pearman of the Diocese of Spokane, Wa.

"I will always remember one of the first things he said: He told all the priests and all of the clergy to take on the smell of the sheep," Deacon Pearman added. "I'm a firefighter and an EMT. I'm also the fire chaplain. I'm right there with people in the worst times of their lives." Pope Francis "not just challenges us to get out there, but to be more open to their stories they tell," the deacon said.

The theme of encounter was a recurring thread during interviews. Althea Graham, a member of Corpus Christi Parish in Detroit who is active in her parish's St. Vincent de Paul group, said: "What I realized, he's so connected to regular people, not necessarily just the religious, but the common folk."

Graham added, "When you talk about encounter he's been about an encounter with people that comes across as authentic," adding Pope Francis creates kinship, "almost like he knows you." People speak lovingly about the pope, she noted. "I feel included."

Nor are non-Catholics immune from the Francis effect.

Ethel Higgins, a regional director with Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., said she realizes this is a new Church which challenges some of the old thoughts about the Church, but that it is important to make the connection young and old philosophies. "He's the best thing since sliced bread, as they could say," she said. 

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