I have been thinking about the Christian world, and the larger world, thinking about Francis. At the very least he has an expert sense of symbolic action and its effect in the postmodern world, rivaled only by his predecessor John Paul II. I recall being in Toronto when World Youth Day was held there in the early 2000’s -- the news media called upon the Pope to retire, said that his incapacitated state was an embarrassment. Then he arrived, with great labor kissed Canadian soil, and declared that he was dragging his dying body around the world in solidarity with Catholic youth. Clearly the press was up against a more than worthy counterpart -- by the end of the week they were entranced. To ‘leverage’ weakness in such a way has not a little to do with the Gospel ministry. Something similar could be said about Francis and his conspicuously Franciscan style.
At the same time, it is disconcerting to hear the news media trying to figure out to what extent Francis is or isn’t ‘progressive.’ The secular political realm not surprisingly thinks in secular political terms. But such terms will not, nor should they, catch what he is about. Some Catholics worry that misunderstandings can have their own consequences -- this too is fair enough. But the heart of what he is about would seem to lie precisely in the logic of a traditional Roman Catholic reaching out into the culture he finds. It is as a missionary that he is to be understood.
Francis is, after all, a Jesuit. The order has had a complicated and varied history, and it certainly has had its more radical representatives. But they have their own way of thinking about things. Consider for example their greatest missionaries, at the dawn of the modern age. They seemed the most accommodated of missionaries, the most adapted to their culture. De Nobili in the saffron robes of a Hindu scholar ascetic, Ricci in his Mandarin silk, Rhodes the Vietnamese elder, not to mention the priests to the Guarani, popularly presented in the movie The Mission. They were at the same time the most traditional and obedient of theologians, doctrinally hardened like steel within. They squared the circle with patience and a sense that the Gospel must be presented in stages according to what the hearer can receive. This doctrine of reserve may be wrong, but it does have a logic to it. My suspicion is that there is something of this within-and-without, of patience and reserve, in the deep DNA of a figure like our present Pope. And if this is so, he raises interesting question for us about how we imagine that the Gospel should be presented by us, in our time and place. The Gospel is always at home and yet a scandal, needing to be heard and yet a whole not reducible to parts. Francis challenges easy dichotomies we may have, and advances a useful debate about evangelization in our own context.