Religion

The Pope of Surprises

If Francis is a breath of fresh air, maybe you should open up one of the Gospels.

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March 13, 2014
The Pope of Surprises AP Photo LOsservatore Romano AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano
The week after Pope Benedict’s surprise resignation, I began writing “Papabile Profiles” for Aleteia. I did my research and learned everything I could about the world’s leading cardinals.

What a stunning array of talent had risen to the top of the Church! From a dynamic young cardinal from the Philippines to a multi-talented Canadian polyglot; from a convert from pagan Africa to the rollicking and rubicund cardinal from New York City. A vast range of ability, experience, and colorful personalities paraded in their red robes for me to dissect and display to the world. But there was one I didn’t mention - the cardinal from Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Bergoglio was in the list of Cardinals, but nobody was talking about him. At 76, he was thought to be too old. His moment was past, having lost out to Ratzinger in 2005. He was not an expert linguist, now was he well-travelled. He had intentionally avoided getting more experience in the Curia. He wasn’t an expert liturgist or theologian. He was a Jesuit; an outsider. He was from the other side of the globe. He was unknown.

Yet on March 13, 2013, he stood at the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, offering the world nothing more than a placid smile and a grandfatherly wave. My own first impression was bewilderment. Why didn’t he say something? Then he spoke in gentle Italian, wishing everyone a “buona sera,” asking them to pray for him and then giving them his blessing.

The surprises had begun. He was the first Jesuit pope, the first American Pope, and the first Pope to take the name of the great saint Francis. The God of surprises had given us a Pope of surprises.

He immediately shocked us by taking the bus back to the Santa Marta Hostel with the other cardinals. The next day, he astonished us again with an unscheduled visit to St. Mary Major to pray, stopping off at the hotel to pay his bill. What next? Was he going to drop into a McDonald’s for an Egg McMuffin? The world was immediately spellbound by a Pope who seemed to be an ordinary guy. It was as if the Queen of England had dropped in to order a takeaway pizza.

Pope Francis has continued to surprise the world. With his knack for off the cuff remarks, his obvious pleasure in being with the people in his crowded audiences, and his willingness to take risks, break out of boxes, and challenge us with the radical claims of the Gospel, he reminds the world that the Gospel itself is a great surprise. Jesus Christ - the Son of God - is a table-turning preacher who continually subverts the established order, challenges the status quo, sticks up for the underdog, and undermines our expectations.

The secular press enjoy contrasting Pope Francis to Pope Benedict. The contrast is real, but it is a question of complementarity and continuity rather than contradiction and conflict. When Pope Francis encouraged the young people at World Youth Day to “go home to their parishes and make a mess,” he was only suggesting they follow his example. His efforts to reform the Curia, update the Vatican finances, and purge the Church of corruption would be his own effort to “make a mess.”

This is how his seemingly upsetting actions and words are best perceived. When he washed the feet of a young Muslim woman; said to journalists, “Who am I to judge?” on his way back from World Youth Day; held a personal, unscripted meeting with a noted atheist writer; reached out to Protestant charismatics; criticized both hide-bound traditionalists and progressive radicals; and told Catholics they should not be “obsessed with abortion and same-sex marriage,” Pope Francis was trying to get our attention and focus our hearts and minds on what matters most.
The week after Pope Benedict’s surprise resignation, I began writing “Papabile Profiles” for Aleteia. I did my research and learned everything I could about the world’s leading cardinals.

What a stunning array of talent had risen to the top of the Church! From a dynamic young cardinal from the Philippines to a multi-talented Canadian polyglot; from a convert from pagan Africa to the rollicking and rubicund cardinal from New York City. A vast range of ability, experience, and colorful personalities paraded in their red robes for me to dissect and display to the world. But there was one I didn’t mention - the cardinal from Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Bergoglio was in the list of Cardinals, but nobody was talking about him. At 76, he was thought to be too old. His moment was past, having lost out to Ratzinger in 2005. He was not an expert linguist, now was he well-travelled. He had intentionally avoided getting more experience in the Curia. He wasn’t an expert liturgist or theologian. He was a Jesuit; an outsider. He was from the other side of the globe. He was unknown.

Yet on March 13, 2013, he stood at the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, offering the world nothing more than a placid smile and a grandfatherly wave. My own first impression was bewilderment. Why didn’t he say something? Then he spoke in gentle Italian, wishing everyone a “buona sera,” asking them to pray for him and then giving them his blessing.

The surprises had begun. He was the first Jesuit pope, the first American Pope, and the first Pope to take the name of the great saint Francis. The God of surprises had given us a Pope of surprises.

He immediately shocked us by taking the bus back to the Santa Marta Hostel with the other cardinals. The next day, he astonished us again with an unscheduled visit to St. Mary Major to pray, stopping off at the hotel to pay his bill. What next? Was he going to drop into a McDonald’s for an Egg McMuffin? The world was immediately spellbound by a Pope who seemed to be an ordinary guy. It was as if the Queen of England had dropped in to order a takeaway pizza.

Pope Francis has continued to surprise the world. With his knack for off the cuff remarks, his obvious pleasure in being with the people in his crowded audiences, and his willingness to take risks, break out of boxes, and challenge us with the radical claims of the Gospel, he reminds the world that the Gospel itself is a great surprise. Jesus Christ - the Son of God - is a table-turning preacher who continually subverts the established order, challenges the status quo, sticks up for the underdog, and undermines our expectations.

The secular press enjoy contrasting Pope Francis to Pope Benedict. The contrast is real, but it is a question of complementarity and continuity rather than contradiction and conflict. When Pope Francis encouraged the young people at World Youth Day to “go home to their parishes and make a mess,” he was only suggesting they follow his example. His efforts to reform the Curia, update the Vatican finances, and purge the Church of corruption would be his own effort to “make a mess.”

This is how his seemingly upsetting actions and words are best perceived. When he washed the feet of a young Muslim woman; said to journalists, “Who am I to judge?” on his way back from World Youth Day; held a personal, unscripted meeting with a noted atheist writer; reached out to Protestant charismatics; criticized both hide-bound traditionalists and progressive radicals; and told Catholics they should not be “obsessed with abortion and same-sex marriage,” Pope Francis was trying to get our attention and focus our hearts and minds on what matters most.


My impressions of the first year of his papacy are that he is the Pope of surprises in the same way that the Gospel is the “good news.” The Gospel is not only good; it is news. In other words, it is a novel concept, fresh and astonishing. To grasp just how shocking the Gospel really is, it is important from time to time to sit down and read a Gospel straight through. When we meet Jesus Christ in this way, the most startling impression is that of surprise.

The incarnation of Jesus Christ into the world was a surprise. Israel was expecting a Messiah who would be the returning scion of the House of David. Instead, they got a baby born to peasant parents in a backwater town of the Roman Empire. They expected a conquering king on a white horse; instead, they got a suffering servant on the back of a donkey. They expected a marvelous monarch, but they got a punchy and unpredictable preacher in his place. They expected a ruler, but got a healer. They expected a rich lord, but found themselves with a friend of the poor.

The Gospels give the stunning impression that no one could keep up with Jesus Christ. He was always one step ahead, able to cut straight to the point. He was smart, but shrewd; compassionate, but powerful; tender, yet tough; sublimely spiritual, yet down to earth.

Therefore, I would advise anyone who is trying to understand Pope Francis to open the Gospels and read them straight through, like a book. Drop all the stained glass window and Sunday School images of Jesus Christ; abandon all the misinterpretations by the media, the cant of half-educated catechists, misinformed religion teachers, sentimental activists, and the twisted pop-culture tales of Jesus that we tend to see in movies.

Go straight to the source and meet the Lord of Surprises.

As you do, you will better understand Pope Francis, and you will be thrilled by the surprising Pope that God has brought to the Church from the far corner of the globe to be the central figure in the drama of our faith.


Check out Fr. Longenecker’s latest book, The Romance of Religion, and join Fr. Dwight’s Lenten Bible Study on his blog. “Read, Mark, and Learn” is a daily walk through St. Mark’s Gospel. Go to Standing on My Head for more information.
Dwight Longenecker expert aleteia network
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