Pope Francis changes the Catholic conversion

By Patrick Howell, SJ

Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 inmates and a baby at Rome's main prison on Holy Thursday—similar to his now established practice. The inmates included six men from Rebibbia prison and six women from the nearby women's detention center. One was a mother carrying her son on her lap: Francis washed and kissed his little foot as well.

Francis has revolutionized the Holy Thursday foot-washing ceremony by performing it on women and non-Catholics and by traveling to detention centers and facilities for the sick. Vatican rules say the ritual should be performed on men, given that Jesus' apostles were male.

But Pope Francis readily dispenses with Vatican protocol in order to serve others. From the evening of his election when he set aside the fancy lace and brocade and kept his own comfortable, black shoes, he has embodied the simplicity of Jesus in the Gospels. Nothing seems to stand in the way of his compassion. And it’s compelling. People from every walk of life and from every religious tradition are drawn to him.

So in the short space of two years, Pope Francis has changed the Catholic conversation. 

As a Jesuit, he has a world-affirming spirituality. God’s creation is a text of revelation just as the Holy Scriptures are.  “Finding God in all things” is a famous Jesuit motto –manifesting confidence that God is constantly trying seeking ways to tracks us down and discover love.  Francis, the Jesuit pope, exudes this positive spirit--joy and warmth and hospitality.

In contrast, despite many positive exhortations to a vibrant spirituality, Benedict seemed aloof.  He frequently issued warnings against the influence of contemporary culture. At World Youth Day in Sidney, Australia, 2008, for instance, he called on Roman Catholics to lead arenewal of faith against the secularism that was threatening the Church. At other times he seemed to advocate a Christianity much reduced in numbers, provided it was committed, orthodox, Christocentric, and devout.

Sometimes these two different worldviews are described as Thomistic (engaging the world in all its dimensions) and Augustinian (suspicious of worldly endeavors). Of course, the Church needs both voices. We are a sinful people, but loved by God on whom he has showered his mercy.

And the differences between the two popes are a good reminder that Catholicism is a big tent and our center of unity in diversity is the Eucharist, God’s life broken and shared among all of us.

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