Is Pope Francis a modern saint, a Christian who is living the Christian life writ large? Consider the following:
- Francis has chosen to live in a building with other priests rather than the more comfortable, as well as more isolated, Vatican apartment of his predecessors.
- In a liturgical observance, Francis washed the feet of women and the poor, not just of clergy.
- Francis has decided to canonize (i.e., formally declare as Saints) both Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII (the former beloved by traditionalists and the latter beloved by progressives for the changes made at the Vatican II conclave that he convened).
- Francis has removed a German bishop from the bishop's see for having an excessively opulent lifestyle, symbolized by the bishop approving a multi-million dollar refurbishment of the bishop's residence.
- Francis has had unscripted interviews with journalists, even with an atheist; he blesses non-believers silently, respecting their right to their own beliefs.
- Francis has emphasized that the Church needs to become more open, stop focusing on ideology, and start being less judgmental, e.g., refusing to condemn gay priests.
Nothing that Francis has done suggests that major changes in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are imminent. For example, I do not anticipate that he will permit the ordination of women, declare that using contraceptives is moral, or recognize that marriage does not depend upon the participants' gender.
The changes are notable for two reasons. First, Francis has changed the tenor of life at the center of the institution, which, if Francis has a long tenure as pope, will hopefully percolate throughout the institution. In my lifetime, the tone of the Roman Catholic Church has shifted from open and welcoming to narrow and exclusionary. When I was in high school, church youth groups in my hometown visited each other's churches – including the Roman Catholic – an historical first that broke centuries old proscriptions against entering the buildings, let alone engaging in dialogue with one another about Christianity. The Roman Catholic chaplains whom I met when I joined the Navy in 1981 were almost all molded by the events of Vatican II. However, by the time that I retired from the Navy in 2005, the Roman Catholic chaplains then serving were among the most narrow and conservative chaplains on active duty.
Second, Francis' simplicity and commitment to the most vulnerable emulate what we know of Jesus' own lifestyle. Francis provides a modern example of one way to life the Christian life, challenging many of us to follow his incarnation of Jesus. His integrity and directness have made Roman Catholic traditionalists (and their evangelical Protestant allies) sufficiently wary that they are actually questioning the Pope's catholicity! (Michelle Boorstein and Elizabeth Tenety, "Conservative Catholics Question Pope Francis's Approach," Washington Post, October 14, 2013 accessed at http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/conservative-catholics-question-pope-franciss-approach/2013/10/12/21d7f484-2cf4-11e3-8ade-a1f23cda135e_story.html.)
The ultimate measure of a life is how one lives, not the content of one's ideas (although the latter may influence both how one lives and how one encourages others to live). By this standard, today on All Souls' Day, Francis appears to be a saint – more than merely one of the faithful – who is worth emulating in deed, though not necessarily in word.