A Pope of surprises

By Patrick Howell, SJ

The Catholic Church has been surprised by joy these last two years.  The new pope has dramatically changed the conversation. As a Jesuit, I’ve tracked the talks and actions of Pope Francis a little more assiduously than most, and I’ve been “riding the Pope mobile” giving lectures and talks wherever I’ve been invited here in the Greater Seattle area. 

Often in a parish setting, the organizers will say the turnout for these talks on Francis is three times greater than their other lectures for adults. And I have Protestant and Jewish friends who are even more enthusiastic than many Catholics about the openness, humanity, and warm heart of the Pope.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley may have said it best, “He’s a good man, a holy man.” He “has brought hope to people’s lives and has compelled many people to take a look at the church again.” 

Francis is certainly an extraordinary leader for our times. He connects with people–where they are. He’s thoroughly Argentinian; he loves tango, soccer, and matte. But he seems at home no matter where he is in the world.

I was at an audience with the Pope last May–along with 60,000 others in the Piazza di San Pietro. My Jesuit friends in Rome say that the weekly audiences with this pope are three or four times larger than those with any previous pope.  The difference, they said, is that the Romans are coming. For the locals, popes come and go, but this pope has drawn them in by his warmth, affection, and care. He has probably kissed and hugged more babies than all the politicians in the U.S. stacked together.

As an indicator of his reception, a highly effective pastor in Seattle said to me, “I didn’t realize how oppressive it was these last 36 years until Francis was elected and opened our eyes and hearts again.”

Did the Cardinals know what they were getting when they elected Francis? In the days leading up to the election, Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio had frankly said that the church is too narcissistic, too self-referential. And then in a telling biblical image –which seems to be his gift and trademark–he said, “Christ is knocking on the door of the Church. But he’s knocking on the inside trying to get out!”

But like St. Pope John XXIII before him who threw open a few windows when he announced the Second Vatican Council, Francis has opened the door and it’s a surprising world out there. To keep that door open the pope is going to need the help of all of us.

In the days ahead I hope to track some of the progress already made–a lot slower and more surefooted–than many of us might have hoped for, and some of the formidable challenges that the Catholic Church needs to face into. Your comments are welcomed, of course.


Patrick Howell, S.J., is the Chair of Conversations magazine and professor of pastoral theology at Seattle University.