Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia reflected that Pope Francis in the first year of his papacy has shown “a deep sense of the continuity of the Church” while also being “something different” and “a surprise.” “He’s a surprise; disarming, improbable, the kind of man no one could have predicted — a surprise that keeps unfolding into more surprises,” Archbishop Chaput said April 25. “There’s something stunning about a Pope who — for the first time in history — takes the icon of Christian simplicity and poverty as his namesake, and then tries to live like he means it.” The archbishop said there is “something exhilarating” about a Pope who worries about Christians whose lives “seem like Lent without Easter” and who warns against those who evangelize with a funeral appearance. Archbishop Chaput spoke about Pope Francis, the Pope’s namesake St. Francis of Assisi, and the canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII in his keynote address to a conference on St. Francis of Assisi and the Western Tradition, hosted by the Catholic Center at New York University. The archbishop suggested that Pope Francis is so popular “because he embodies what the world imagines St. Francis was like: a mendicant and troubadour, not a judge and not a scholar.” Though Pope Francis has “a sophisticated mind,” the world finds him appealing in his “serenity and informality,” his “passionate embrace of the poor and the outcast,” and his “studied avoidance of condemning anyone.” “Who is Francis, this Pope?” Archbishop Chaput asked. “The short answer is, I don’t know.” The archbishop expressed his belief that few people outside Pope Francis’ friends and close coworkers really know the Pope. He reported that many Latin American bishops have said the Pope now seems “much more outgoing and ebullient” than he was as a bishop in Argentina. Archbishop Chaput also noted the continuity of Pope Francis with his predecessors, seen in his upcoming canonizations of John Paul II and John XXIII, as well as his affection for Benedict XVI that “clearly comes from the heart.” He suggested that Pope Francis has avoided the problems of Europe-born Popes, who have been deeply affected by “the civil war for Europe’s soul” that began before the Enlightenment. This conflict continues today in Europe’s “denial of its Christian roots” and its “self-destroying battles over marriage, family, sexual identity and euthanasia.” “Europe has exhausted itself,” the archbishop said. “Europe has exhausted the world.” “Maybe a genuinely new evangelization can never be achieved except by a new voice with a new spirit from a new world,” he proposed. “Pope Francis is no stranger to poverty or violence, the plague of corrupt politics or the cruelty of human trafficking. But neither is he a child of the Old World, with its cynicism and despair, its wars and its hatreds.” Instead, he said, Pope Francis “embodies a Christian spirit older than Europe’s civil war and younger than its fatigue and loss of hope.” Archbishop Chaput has personal experience with Pope Francis. He worked with the future Pope in late 1997 during the Special Assembly for America in Rome. He found him to be “an impressive man” of “keen intelligence” with a “strong emphasis on evangelization” and “a healthy realism about the problems facing the Church in our hemisphere.” The archbishop said the future will reveal whether Pope Francis’ popularity can endure in the face of pastoral challenges facing Catholicism. “How the Pope speaks and acts over the next 20 months on matters like marriage, family and sexuality — issues of burning interest to the media of the developed world — will have a big impact on the way he’s treated by the press,” the archbishop said. “In the end, Popes lead. And leaders inevitably displease somebody; sometimes a great many somebodies. But of course the real St. Francis never turned away from a task simply because it was hard.”
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