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'Missionary-in-chief' finds new focus for his flock.

Byline: Steven H. Foskett Jr.

WORCESTER -- In his short time leading the Catholic Church, Pope Francis' popularity has skyrocketed.

Along with that popularity comes some profound misunderstandings and misconceptions, but paying attention to a few simple areas that have come to define the pope's tenure can help develop a real understanding about how he operates, Vatican expert John Allen told an audience Wednesday night at Assumption College.

Mr. Allen, an analyst with CNN and an associate editor with The Boston Globe, who is involved with that paper's new Crux website dedicated to covering Catholicism, said the pope has laid out a vision for the church based on three guiding principles: leadership as service, a missionary vision and mercy.

Pope Francis almost immediately after being elected set out to model the behavior he would like to see emulated in Catholic churches across the globe. Mr. Allen said it was initially a collection of small but noticeable gestures, like packing his own bags, or riding a shuttle bus with other church officials on a shuttle rather than in his "popemobile.''

Part of that is Pope Francis' personality, deeply rooted in his background in Argentina. Mr. Allen said the pope even personally took care of canceling his newspaper subscription in Buenos Aries after he was elected pope. Those gestures also are indicative of his masterful political skills. Nothing the pope does is without some sort of meaning, Mr. Allen said.

The down-to-earth image displayed by Pope Francis is part of an effort to shift the image of Catholicism away from power and privilege. The pope wants people to see the symbols of Catholicism and think about service to their fellow men and women, Mr. Allen said.

He said the pope has talked about this vision, saying "The church does not need leaders with the psychology of a prince.''

Rather, the church needs more shepherds who carry the smell of their sheep, Mr. Allen quoted the pope as saying.

And it has been more than just talk. Mr. Allen noted that Pope Francis sent an investigator to Germany after a bishop there was found to have spent millions of dollars in renovations on his residence. That bishop eventually resigned, Mr. Allen said.

The pope sees himself as a sort of "missionary-in-chief,'' Mr. Allen said, and has tried to shine a light on issues that deviate from the ones that typically consume Catholic debates.

Because he has received so much attention, many people mistakenly get the impression that Pope Francis is some sort of radical. He's not, Mr. Allen said. He's robustly pro-life, for example. But he believes that other elements of Catholic teachings need to be lifted up a bit.

His first trip out of Rome was to an island in the Mediterranean immigrants come to on their way to seek a better life in Europe; over the decades an estimated 20,000 people have died trying to make the dangerous crossing.

Pope Francis also called for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics to observe a day of prayer and fasting as a push back against the drums of war against Syria last year.

That missionary spirit of showing solidarity with the poor and opposing war is the "beating heart'' of what Francis' vision of a missionary church looks like, Mr. Allen said.

Mercy has been the third column of Pope Francis' vision for the church, Mr. Allen said.

"Mercy is this pope's motto,'' Mr. Allen said.

He told a humorous story about the pope wanting to visit a parish in Rome, and indicating he wanted to do confessions. The pastor handling the visit plucked some people out of line, who were afraid they were losing their opportunity to see the pope.

"The pastor said, 'Oh trust me, you're going to meet the pope,''' Mr. Allen said.

But on a deeper level, Pope Francis saw it as important that he be seen celebrating one of the church's primary sacraments of mercy.

The world has heard the church's judgment on various issues. Now it's time for the world to feel that mercy, Mr. Allen said.

Contact Steven H. Foskett Jr. at
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Title Annotation:Local
Author:Foskett, Steven H., Jr.
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Oct 3, 2014
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