Pope Francis’s Pastoral Mission

By Alexander Wilde*

Photo Credit: Ministério da Defesa / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Ministério da Defesa / Flickr / Creative Commons

The primary purpose of Pope Francis’s trip to Latin America – like all papal visits since Pope Paul VI made the first in 1968 before the historic meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia – is pastoral.  The media are grasping for the implications of his visiting Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay this week, looking for a theme, for example, in the common factors of their poverty, indigenous populations, and environmental conflicts.  Others wonder if this Argentine pope, well acquainted with Peronism, carries a political message about the dangers of left-wing populism.  Yet others posit this trip in terms of religious “competition” to recapture market share from Evangelicals.

This visit and this extraordinary pope, however, are focused on his broader pastoral message – conveying to the faithful his deepest beliefs about what their faith demands of him and of them.  Francis, in contrast to his immediate predecessors, has given a strongly social orientation to this pastoral ministry, while reinforcing its spiritual foundation in personal faith.  In doing this, he has embraced the renewal wrought by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and what he apparently judges the positive insights of liberation theology.  Christians must live their faith in the world and their times, and that includes engaging with other “men and women of good will” to realize God’s purposes for humanity.  Pope Francis repeats that phrase, taken from Pope John XXIII, in his new environmental encyclical Laudato Si’.  Visiting these three countries – in which conflicts over land, oil, forests, and water have mobilized social protests – presents clear opportunities to speak out about how the encyclical’s analysis and moral judgments may apply in concrete settings.

Pope Francis brings to his pastoral visit a belief that he and the Catholic Church should “meet people where they are.”  During 15 years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, that meant being an active presence among the poor in the villas miserias.  Now he links that pastoral injunction to global issues of poverty, development, and the environment.  He appears to feel a deep responsibility to spur action but at the same time a strong grasp of the intractability of the larger processes, political and natural, involved.  He has said more than once that he expects his papacy to be brief, suggesting that he may view this trip within a God-given responsibility to use his limited time and moral authority to help us confront the most fundamental problems of our future together in this world.  Latin Americans have shown growing awareness of these problems.  Their response to this trip is probably not best judged by Mass attendance but rather by whether they can take concrete steps to link, as Francis does, the “cry of the poor” and the “cry of the earth” in their societies. 

July 7, 2015

* Alexander Wilde is editor of Religious Responses to Violence: Human Rights in Latin America Past and Present (University of Notre Dame Press, forthcoming December 2015). 

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  1. Daniel H Levine

     /  July 13, 2015

    Although the press coverage of the Pope’s visit has been ample, it has been disappointingly focused on the short term, and on trying to read the tea leaves of the Pope’s words and actions for short-term political benefits.

    Lots of politicians and others will try to capture the aura of his popularity to legitimize their cause, but I suspect that those who try to read the Pope’s speeches and parse the meaning of his visits to specific sites, particularly for short-term benefits of some kind, are going to be disappointed.

    Francis is consistent and direct in what he says. He is also skilled in managing his statements and his presence in ways that make it difficult to pigeonhole him in conventional political terms: Is he “liberal” or “conservative”, is he “left” or “right”? These are not the best questions. His pastoral approach, as he understands and practices it, is consistent and necessarily puts him in places that people will wish to interpret and use for their purposes, but those are not his purposes.

    As to the question of what he has been doing on the environmental issue, or why he is addressing a “nonreligious question” like the environment, the answer is pretty clear. For Francis, the environment IS a religious issue. The earth is God’s gift and we need to respect that gift and think about how our use affects all. What he is doing is precisely what someone in his position can and should do–shine light on the issue, legitimize it as a matter for public discussion, take a position and show its implications.

    As for the criticism that he should leave science to the scientists, Francis does have a scientific background, more than many politicians who cite the science only to scorn it.

    Francis’ trip to these three countries is not an event whose possible impacts are well understood through the lens of short-term effects.

    It is like the question, which I have been asked in numerous interviews, about whether or not this visit will counter the trends of loss to other churches in the region. The only serious answer is that it is too early to know; that the Pope’s presence will clearly energize many; that the panorama he is facing is the result of long-term demographic and cultural dynamics that are unlikely to be changed overnight, or by a week’s visit.

    There are more international trips to come, including to the US in the fall, where I expect the same short-term tea leaf reading will be prominent. And there will be impacts, but to understand them properly it helps to start by making sense of the logic that moves the Pope, not the logic that moves those who want to associate him with their cause, whatever it is.

    Daniel H. Levine
    Professor of Political Science, emeritus University of Michigan
    Profesor Honorario de Ciencias Sociales, Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru

  2. Author’s Note:

    Below is a link to a very good piece in Commonweal on Luis Espinal, the naturalized Bolivian priest whose “Marxist” crucifix Evo Morales recently presented to Pope Francis. It touches on the same point that Dr. Levine is making:



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