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The Francis Factor: Fr. Thomas Rosica

Distinguished Panelists,
Dear Friends,

It is a privilege and pleasure for me to moderate this great event hosted by the Archdiocese of Baltimore and Loyola University and stand before 3000 people who all love Pope Francis!

We heard earlier from Fr. Matt Malone about the difference between chronological time and kairos time. Such a distinction is crucial to understanding what is happening right now in the Church. I would like to tell you about a day last year when my life moved from “chronos” to “kairos”! As head of Canada’s Catholic Television Network and Media Foundation, life was moving along in a rather chronological fashion until the morning of February 11, 2013.  On that day, it seemed as though the plates of our little worlds shifted with the resignation of Pope Benedict. I still recall Fr. Federico Lombardi’s telephone call and his invitation to “come immediately to Rome” to help out with what he called “a deluge” of media requests about the new ecclesial reality that was emerging. Arriving in Rome several days later, I realized that this was not a deluge but rather a tsunami! I had the privilege of serving as English language spokesperson for the Holy See during the momentous papal transition.  My work with the Vatican continues as I serve as a liaison with the English language (and French) media throughout the world.

What a year it has been for us! What many called “the honeymoon period” of Pope Francis’ Pontificate - a passing period of infatuation with the first Pope from the New World, continues to the present moment. This is proof that the true love, affection and respect for him from every corner of the globe is not a passing fad or trend.

With the surprising election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the See of Peter, I have repeatedly been asked this question: Is this all the work of a PR company, clever media strategists or slick spin doctors hired by the Vatican to rebrand its image? Or is there something else at work?

What has happened in the church, and how can it be that a 77-year-old, retirement-bound archbishop from Buenos Aires has captivated the world? How can we describe the sense of springtime that has come upon the church? How is it fathomable in our day and age that not only Christians and Catholics but millions of others are speaking about “Papa Francesco” as if he were their own?

For many in the “First World” and among young persons in particular, religion has no relevance to their lives whatsoever. It’s seen by some as a rather charming throwback and by others as one more insidious force focused on power, money and self-preservation. When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope a year ago, only a few expected that the new Catholic leader would confront all of these challenges simultaneously.

Let me tell you what I think is afoot! The new Pope took the name Francis upon his election as Bishop of Rome and told us he did so because of his love for Francis of Assisi. For the past year, many of us have been associating the Pope’s gestures and actions with the “Poverello” or “Little Poor One” of Assisi, perhaps the most beloved saint of the Catholic tradition.

One day as a young man, Francis heard the plea of Jesus from the crucifix in the dilapidated San Damiano chapel on Assisi’s outskirts. “Go and repair my Church,” he heard Jesus say. And he certainly did that in his lifetime and through the huge Franciscan family that he left behind to carry forward his dream and continue his work.

Many of us have spent the past months finding similarities between Francis of Assisi and Francis of Buenos Aires, who took up residence in a guest house in Vatican City rather than the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace.

We become easily fixated on lots of eye-catching, buzz-causing externals and great photo opportunities: A Pope who abandoned the red shoes - that were never an official part of the papal wardrobe! A Pope who dresses modestly, pays his own lodging bills, drives around Vatican City in a Ford Focus, brings jam sandwiches to on-duty Swiss Guards at his door and invites street people to his birthday breakfast. This Roman pontiff specializes in kissing babies and embracing the sick, disfigured broken bodies, and the abandoned of society. A pope who knows how to use a telephone, and uses it often. A pope who waits in line for the coat check at the Vatican, lines up for coffee, and introduces himself: “Sono Francesco. Come ti chiami?” We sit back, smile and utter: “What simplicity!” “Wow!” “Awesome!” “Finalmente!”

But that is not the whole story. I have realized more and more over the past year that while I have always loved Francis of Assisi and all the romantic ideals he embraced and stood for, Francis of Buenos Aires doesn’t transport me back to medieval Assisi. He takes me back to Bethlehem, Galilee and Jerusalem.

Everything the Pope is doing now is not just an imitation of his patron saint who loved the poor, embraced lepers, charmed sultans, made peace and protected nature. It’s a reflection of the child of Bethlehem who would grow up to become the man of the cross in Jerusalem, the Risen One that no tomb could contain, the man we Christians call Savior and Lord. Pope Francis has given us a powerful glimpse into the mind and heart of God.

On the late afternoon of March 13, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio received the call to go, rebuild, repair, renew and heal the church. What we have witnessed over the past eleven months is simply a disciple of Jesus, and a faithful disciple of Ignatius of Loyola and of Francis of Assisi, repairing, renewing, restoring, reconciling and healing the Church. There are those who delight in describing the new Pope as a bold, brazen revolutionary sent to rock the boat. Others think he has come to cause a massive shipwreck. But the only revolution that Pope Francis has inaugurated is a revolution of tenderness, the very words he used in his recent major letter on "The Joy of the Gospel." [Evangelii Gaudium #88]

It is this revolution that is at the heart and soul of Pope Francis’ ministry. It is his unflinching freedom that allows him to do what he does because he is unafraid and totally free to be himself at the same time of being such faithful son of the Church. It is his goodness, joy, kindness and mercy that introduce us to the tenderness of our God. No wonder why he has taken the world by storm, and why so many people are paying attention to him. No wonder why magazines and newspapers acclaim him as “Person of the Year”, “best Dressed man,” “Rolling Stone” icon and “Advocate” champion, to name but a few! We need the Francis revolution of tenderness and mercy now more than ever before.

He has declared that the church’s main mission would no longer be as a lead combatant in the culture wars. The Church must stand primarily with and for the neediest. He has shown that the spiritual life is also a life of social commitment. He demands a lot while preaching about a God of mercy by engaging joyfully with nonbelievers, atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and those sitting on the fences of life- many who thought that Christianity has nothing left to add to the equations of life.

Francis has called for a church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets” and has proved that such a church is hard to ignore.

What is the most important achievement of Pope Francis? He has rebranded Catholicism and the papacy.

Prior to Francis, if you asked people on the street, "What is the Catholic church all about? What does the pope stand for?", the response would often be, "Catholics, well they are against abortion, gay marriage and birth control." “They are known for the sex abuse crisis that has terribly marred and weakened their moral authority and credibility. Though the media rightly exposed our sins for the abuse crisis, at the same it often falsely portrays us for our teaching and values at the core of our Catholic beliefs.

Today, the response would be different. What do they say about us now? What do they say about the Pope? People are speaking about our leader who is unafraid to confront the sins and evils that have marred us. We have a pope who is concerned about compassion, love, especially for the poor. He has even won over the media.

Many of my colleagues in the media industry have said that Francis has made it fun to be a religion reporter and journalist again. He has done such a magnificent job in changing the image of the church that our prestigious graduate schools of business and management could use him as a case study in rebranding.

The Pope has said that will not be a captive of forces at work inside the Vatican. He has appointed people who support his vision. One of them is sitting before me in a brown Franciscan habit. Thank God Pope Francis has Cardinal Seán on his team of the C8!

Will the Francis reform succeed? Yes. And I will tell you why. Francis’ reform is inevitable.Why? Because it is not based on the Code of Canon Law, Motu Proprios, Apostolic Constitutions, not even on the Jesuit Exercises or Franciscan foundational documents, important as these texts may be.

His reform is not emanating from Assisi, Loyola, Manresa or even from Rome, as significant as those holy places may be! It is coming from another land where we find Bethlehem, Galilee and Jerusalem: the land of the Bible.

Francis will succeed because his life, vision, hopes and dreams are founded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are indeed living a moment of kairos, the appointed time and hour, when the Gospel story is unfolding before us once again in the life of Pope Francis.

Thank you.