First impressions of Pope Francis in 2013 revealed his style and pastoral priorities, and since then, his words and actions have continued to inspire and challenge the Catholic Church and the world, panelists said at a Nov. 21 “Francis Factor Today” dialogue at Georgetown University.

Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, one of the speakers at the Dahlgren Dialogue, held in the university’s Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart, said a “pivotal moment for me” in understanding the new Pope Francis then came just before the pontiff was inaugurated, when he celebrated Mass at St. Anna Church in Vatican City.

“He came out of church when Mass was over and he stood and greeted people. He did what most good pastors do every Sunday. He encountered his people by shaking their hands, hugging babies… He told us by that gesture that this pontificate would be pastoral in dimension,” Archbishop Gregory said, adding, “That’s a key factor in understanding his pontificate. He is a pastor, and he approaches the papacy from that perspective.”

Another panelist, John Carr, the director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, noted how Pope Francis after being elected explained how a veteran cardinal during the conclave had reminded him not to forget the poor, and that inspired the choice of his name as pope, modeling himself after St. Francis of Assisi.

“Francis said, ‘That’s when I decided I shall call myself Francis, a man of the poor, a man of peace, and a man of creation. I hope we’re a poor Church for the poor,” said Carr, recounting the new pope’s words. “Some people say they’re confused about Francis. We knew from the first moment – (he was a pope for) the poor, peace and creation.”

Carr noted how Pope Francis demonstrated his concern for the poor during his 2015 visit to Washington, when right after addressing members of Congress, the pope went to meet people being served by Catholic Charities in the nation’s capital.

The third speaker, Helen Alvaré – a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University – said, “I think of Francis’s pontificate as an extended meditation on the Good Samaritan story. He is highlighting who are the people strewn on our path right now, and that’s been a change over time over different papacies. He’s focusing upon the immigrant, the refugee, which is a huge fact of our life on the globe right now. He’s focusing on environmental spoilage, he’s focusing on the poor, he’s focusing on the unemployed.”

She pointed to an example of how Pope Francis’s focus has unfolded in practical results, saying under the leadership of a pope who sometimes has lunch with the homeless and poor, now a former shop at the Vatican near St. Peter’s Square where tourists used to buy souvenir stamps has become a health center for the poor.

Pope Francis, she said, inspires people “to attend to the issues of the time that are pressing with an open heart and mind,” and to transform words into actions. Alvaré added, “For Francis, and his pastoral bent, he’s pushing us to be real and to be effective in our circle of influence and not just to talk.”

Alvaré said Pope Francis’s biggest impact on her personally and as a parent concerned with transmitting the faith to her children and sharing the faith with others through her work, has been to inspire her to rely on prayer. The pope’s example, she said, reminds her “don’t try to do anything before you listen to what God wants first… First, be a person of faith, first be a person who can bring Christ with you (to others)…”

The Dahlgren Dialogue series – which was also cosponsored by Georgetown University’s Office of Mission and Ministry – drew a capacity crowd to the ornate chapel. The speakers sat in chairs in the sanctuary, where their conversation on Pope Francis unfolded after an opening prayer by Jesuit Father Mark Bosco, the university’s vice president for mission and ministry. The gathering closed with prayers offered by Georgetown students, and then a hymn.

Welcoming those gathered there, John DeGioia, Georgetown’s president, said, “These dialogues offer an opportunity for us to come together in prayer, reflection and conversation on the intersection of faith with public life, as we seek a deeper alignment of our values and our actions.”

Participants in the Nov. 21 dialogue at Georgetown University's Dahlgren Chapel included, from left, Helen Alvare, a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University; Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory; Kim Daniels, the associate director of Georgetown's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life; and John Carr, the initiative's director. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

The conversation was moderated by Kim Daniels, the associate director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, who noted, “We’re in a very volatile political moment in our country, and we’re obviously also in a very polarizing time for our Church as well.” Then she asked the three speakers about their perspectives on how Pope Francis has challenged the Church and the world, and how have the realities in the Church affected him, and how has he responded.

Archbishop Gregory noted that Pope Francis has emphasized reforming the Vatican’s Curia as a key priority. “He is a pope who never worked in Rome, and that is real clear in the way he looks at the organizational structure there.”

The archbishop also noted how the pope is working to address the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, which the Vatican has come to understand is a global issue, not just an American problem.

“And he’s acknowledged when he’s made mistakes and in dramatic fashion,” Archbishop Gregory said. “For example, when he went to Chile and he encountered obviously the scandalous (abuse) situation that was there. He had heretofore defended what he thought was legitimate pastoral issues, but he discovered he was wrong.” In a 2017 letter, Pope Francis acknowledged that he had underestimated the crisis in Chile, and he apologized to abuse survivors there. Later, he met with that nation’s bishops, who offered their resignations to him in the wake of the scandal.

Archbishop Gregory said that Pope Francis’s apology to Catholics in Chile “was stunning… Francis said, ‘I had bad information, and I have now become part of the problem.’ So he’s revealed his humanity and his humility in startling ways.”

Noting how the pope, now in the sixth year of his pontificate, is trying to deal with those difficult issues, the archbishop added, “Let’s be honest. He’s learning on the job.”

Daniels asked the speakers about the opposition that the pontiff has faced and about polarization in the Church.

“Pope Francis is not the first pope to encounter opposition,” said Archbishop Gregory, who pointed out the criticism and pushback that Pope St. John Paul II faced from some in the Church after hosting an interreligious prayer service in Assisi.

“The thing that I think makes it different now is social media. The opposition now has a microphone that has no volume control on it…,” said Washington’s archbishop, who later added, “What’s different, however, is that this is organized and it is well funded and it is prominent in social media. I think it’s scandalous, personally. I don’t think Francis is afraid of criticism. He’s a Jesuit. What does cause him headaches is the insidiousness of the opposition.”

Carr noted, “I’m afraid we’re losing the promise and hope and priorities of Pope Francis’s pontificate by focusing on our old ideological and ecclesial battles.”

Pope Francis, he said, “looks at the world from the bottom up, from the outside in…” Carr pointed out how many people became “obsessed with a footnote” in the pope’s Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) 2016 apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family that seemed to offer an opening for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, and how much attention at the Vatican’s recent Synod on the Amazon was drawn to a controversial sculpture exhibited there of a pregnant native woman.

“I think we have been diverted from this special message (of Francis’s papacy) into a particularly North American fight where we bring our old baggage and battles, not that the question of divorce and remarriage, not that the question of getting the Eucharist to people in the Amazon who don’t have it, those are important issues,” Carr said.

The resistance to Pope Francis from some on the right “is both more than I expected and less than it appears to be,” said Carr, who added that he believes that opposition is strong and powerful but narrow. “It needs to be taken seriously when it involves real concerns about doctrine and passing on the faith. We can have discussions about pastoral style and priorities. I think there are factions within the Church where this is not about those things, this is about ecclesial, political and economic power.”

Alvaré said she thinks Catholics in the United States are filtering Pope Francis and his teaching through their own categories of interest, and as a result some people are upset at him if they feel he does not emphasize certain teaching enough. She is writing a book about how the Catholic Church from its earliest years was not only known for its charitable outreach to all those in need, but also for its teachings on marriage and sex and on respect for human life in all its stages. 

Alvaré believes Pope Francis could alleviate some confusion among American Catholics if he would more forcefully articulate “why there is no daylight whatsoever between (Church teaching on) the love of one another in sex, marriage and caring for the respect for life and the love to take care of the person strewn across the path like a Good Samaritan.”

When asked about Pope Francis’s warnings about a “throwaway culture,” Alvaré said that image conjures up the sight of not only waste and consumption in countries like the United States, but also refugees crowded onto a boat trying to flee their country, and the horrors of abortion clinics boxing up fetal parts.

On another topic, Alvaré noted that Pope Francis “says big things about the role of women in the Church… He talks about women, like men, being of mutual service to one another, to the Church, to the world, and not servitude,” which the role of women has too often been relegated to. The pope, she said, has called for “more places for women everywhere in the Church,” which Alvaré said she has witnessed with women playing leading roles in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, and is reflected in women serving as chancellors and in many other top posts at diocesan levels. “Women are doing all kinds of things (in the Church). We’re not celebrating it enough,” she said.

Archbishop Gregory noted how he had witnessed that kind of leadership in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, when Susan Varlamoff, a retired director of the University of Georgia’s Office of Environmental Sciences, led the effort to write a pastoral plan for that archdiocese to implement Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.

That encyclical, he said, “is a pastoral theological statement that has to be filtered down so people can take it and implement it,” and Varlamoff did that for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, so Catholics could bring that teaching to life on a personal, parish and industrial level.

Pope Francis’s teaching in Laudato Si’ offered a challenge to Catholics and to others concerned about the environment, Carr said, noting the encyclical “said to Christians, care for creation has to be at the center of what it is to be a disciple. And he’s said to people who care about the environment, that care for the least of these has to be at the core of what it means to care for creation, to care for the world.”

Also during the “Francis Factor Today” dialogue, Carr addressed factions within the Catholic Church, saying he worries about “what I call ‘pick-a-pope’ Catholicism, (people who say), ‘I’m a John Paul II priest,’ ‘Benedict is my kind of pope,’ or ‘I’m on team Francis.’”

Carr said that seems to him to be “a way to divide us up, not bring us together,” and he thinks it’s time to stop that mindset and “remind ourselves we (Catholics) are one family, and we have one pope, and he’s leading us in a good direction.”