June 19, 2013 — June 20 marks Pope Francis’ 100th day on the job and to commemorate the occasion, Jesuit Conference President Father Thomas H. Smolich, S.J., talks about his first impressions of the history-making pontiff:
People often ask me, “So, what do you think of your new Jesuit pope? How’s he doing?” As a Washington, D.C. resident, I’ve often seen a new leader’s first 100 days in office used as a convenient yardstick for assessing his impact and effectiveness. And as a former English teacher, I’m no stranger to report cards.
So with all due respect to His Holiness, here’s one Jesuit’s report card on Francis’ first 100 days as pope.
First Impressions: A+ Before delivering his first papal blessing, Francis asked the crowd in St. Peter’s Square to pray for him – and from that moment, we knew we were witnessing a different kind of papacy. Francis is a man with a deep connection to the faithful and to the world at large. He knows how to translate what is in his heart into gestures that ring true. Simple acts – paying his own hotel bill, for instance, and wearing his own shoes instead of the red slippers – tell us he knows something about the lives most people lead.
Like any effective chief executive, Francis understands that much of his power as pope is symbolic: he leads by example, by the depth of his passion. His impromptu style may give Vatican officials fits, but it allows him to connect with people all over the world. In the age of Twitter, he is proving himself deft with a pithy phrase: “Shepherds should smell like their sheep” is my favorite, though I’m also fond of his statement that losing direct contact with the poor leads to “gentrification of the heart.”
External Affairs: A Leaving the slums of Buenos Aires for the corridors of the Vatican hasn’t dulled Francis’ mission and message: the poor should be the focus of the Church. At his March 18 installation mass, he pledged to serve “the poorest, the weakest, the least important.” He followed this by washing the feet of prisoners, among them a Muslim woman, at an untraditional Holy Thursday celebration.
In a May 16 ceremony, he told an audience of new ambassadors that “the Pope has the duty, in Christ’s name, to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them, to promote them.” Moreover, by reopening the process for sainthood of El Salvador’s murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero and accepting a blood-stained relic of Romero from Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, Francis has shown that his love for the poor is not affected by old ideological struggles.
Internal Affairs: Incomplete A papal election often rekindles hope for change in the Vatican bureaucracy. Francis has taken some encouraging steps in this area: cancelling bonuses for Vatican Bank cardinals, and appointing an international group of eight cardinals to advise him on reforming the Vatican’s opaque ways of doing business. Still, the pope’s overall Internal Affairs grade is Incomplete because he has yet to make new appointments to several important positions such as Secretary of State.
Some observers still have high expectations of significant change in Vatican policies, but Pope Francis’ past leadership does not point in that direction. Rather, Vatican offices that focus on the evangelizing mission of the Church rather than internal politics, that take a church of the poor and marginalized seriously, that understand the power of symbol and gesture – these could be the ultimate, positive outcomes of a Vatican truly aligned with its leader.
I believe the report card on Francis’ first 100 days is strongly positive. But so what? Why are these first 100 days important? Here’s why: First impressions matter; they make a real difference.
Something has changed in the last 100 days. The enormous challenges faced by the Catholic Church – sexual misconduct, shrinking congregations and all the rest – are real, and they aren’t going away anytime soon. But in recent weeks I’ve been struck by the number of practicing Catholics who find their step a bit lighter, as well as former and inactive Catholics who find themselves willing to give the Church another listen.
If this trend continues, much credit goes to the pope who, just a 100 days ago, began to share his vision of a mission that unifies rather than divides, a Church that is truly attuned to its world and its people.