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).