From the July/August 2015 issue of Discern Magazine

A Pope of Surprises

Millions have been mesmerized by Pope Francis I. Few grasp the agenda that he has set out for the Vatican.

Historic. Unprecedented. Electrifying. Pope Francis has become a whirlwind of news and a global phenomenon. He has skillfully exploited the perception of his being detached from wealth, power and pride and has charmed much of the world with his broad smile, folksy manner and attention-grabbing disregard for protocol. 

The world media have embraced Francis. He has been named Person of the Year everywhere from Time magazine to the pro-gay magazine The Advocate. Britain’s Guardian announced that Francis was now “the world’s loudest and clearest voice against the status quo” and the Financial Times decided he was “the leading global symbol of compassion and humility.” He has even been named Esquire’s best-dressed man! 

It may seem strange to some readers for a religious-based magazine like Discern to throw a blanket of caution over such a magnetic figure (“the coolest pope ever,” according to NBC’s Today Show). 

But Scripture cautions us that things are not always what they seem. The Bible warns that a different gospel, with a different view of God’s laws, would counterfeit the biblical gospel of the literal Kingdom of God. 

The apostle Paul clearly warns that one of the greatest deceptions ever will occur at the time of the end under a great religious figure he called the “lawless one” (2 Thessalonians 2:3-12). People ever since have pondered who this could be and how he could bring about the prophesied spectacular events that would astonish and delude millions around the world. 

Many have foolishly branded various figures as “the beast” or “the false prophet,” only to be discredited; and Discern distances itself from such proclamations. However, we do not distance ourselves from Jesus’ statement to the religious leaders of His day: “You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3). 

Knowing the prophecies of a powerful, apparently charismatic, end-time religious figure who will arise and deceive, we would be foolish not to have a discerning eye on any potential development along this line. 

Bergoglio’s backstory becomes the Vatican future

Having watched his predecessor, Benedict XVI, become encrusted by Vatican bureaucracy and engulfed by scandals of court intrigue, clerical child sex abuse and a widespread culture of financial corruption, Pope Francis is clearly in an “evangelical hurry,” as Catholic theologian George Weigel put it, because he is 78 years old and knows that if new things don’t get done quickly, they may not get done at all.

“Vatican watchers,” according to the May 14, 2015, U.S. News & World Report, “say the confluence of the pope’s personality, his Jesuit background and the geopolitical situation all combine to explain his assertiveness” on the world stage (“What’s Driving Pope Francis’ Middle East Diplomacy?”).

“The key point to understanding Francis,” observes veteran Vatican journalist John Allen, “is this: beneath his humble, simple exterior lies the mind of a brilliant Jesuit politician. Francis is spontaneous and often unscripted, but he’s never naive. Behind his seemingly impulsive and extemporaneous flourishes is a clear conception of where he wants to go and how to get there.” Allen adds that Francis “is not an ethereal monk indifferent to, or naive about, the realities of power. … He has a track record of bending institutions to his will” (The Francis Miracle, 2015, pp. 231, 246).

Upon being named the bishop of Rome, Francis introduced himself as a man from “the ends of the earth,” but the center of the Catholic Church had already shifted south decades before. In 1910, 70 percent of the world’s Catholics lived north of the equator (primarily in Europe). By 2010 around 40 percent of all Catholics were in Latin America, and Spanish was the most widely spoken language in the Catholic world. More than seven in 10 Latin American Catholics are under the age of 25—the reverse of membership trends in North America and a highly secularized Europe.

Jesuit background

The descendant of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Jorge Bergoglio has been described as militantly religious from the age of 14. Working first as a chemist and nightclub bouncer, he was fascinated by members of the Society of Jesus (or Jesuit order), which he later joined. Jesuits have the longest period of training in the Catholic Church, with 10 or more rigorous years “in formation” before taking a unique, final vow of loyal obedience to the pope and becoming a priest.

Known for being tough, resourceful and willing to plant the flag of their faith anywhere, Jesuits were the most ardent missionaries and foot soldiers of the Counter-Reformation against Protestantism. More effective than fortresses in holding the line against Protestants, Jesuits became specialists in educating the children of the wealthy and elite while serving as popular confessors in the royal courts, becoming masters of ambiguity and showing a worldly finesse in political matters. 

“Jesuits,” as historian Paul Johnson explains, “were widely identified with the view that the moral code could in some way be suspended when Catholic interests were at risk” (A History of Christianity, 1976, p. 305).

Returning the Vatican to diplomatic relevance

As the first Jesuit and first pope from the New World, Francis appears determined to reorient the Vatican and set a more personal stamp on foreign policy. Hailing from Latin America, a region with a turbulent political history, widespread poverty and a wary relationship with the United States, Francis is focusing on the “peripheries” (Africa, Latin America, Asia) far differently than any of his European predecessors.

In the geopolitical sense, the papacy matters. Noted political scientist Joseph Nye calculates the Vatican to be the world’s most important soft power—that is, a superpower not through the coercion of military or economic might but through the subtle ability to influence hearts and minds. After the inward-looking pontificate of his scholarly predecessor, Francis has put the Vatican back on the map with an active Vatican diplomacy that uses his popularity (Pew Research Center reports favorability ratings higher than any modern pope among Catholics, Protestants and nonreligious) and the huge audience he commands (1.2 billion Catholics worldwide) to challenge entrenched diplomatic positions.

“Only four years ago,” observed UN-based diplomatic reporter Colum Lynch in the May 11, 2015, issue of Foreign Policy, “the Vatican was in danger of becoming a diplomatic backwater.” But a new age of political audacity has begun as Pope Francis has begun to flex the Catholic Church’s diplomatic muscles. He has countries racing to upgrade relations with the Vatican “to leverage the Pope’s charisma and influence to advance their interests.” 

Unafraid to mix theology and politics, Francis is “‘someone who’s capable of praying in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and then talking about the Armenian genocide. He’s not someone who’s bound by political correctness,’ said former Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. ‘It’s the diplomacy of a real leader’” (Gavin Jones and James Mackenzie, “Pope Francis Extends Agenda of Change to Vatican Diplomacy,” Reuters, May 17, 2015). 

Last year he brokered a historic thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States after decades of hostility. More recently, he has made Middle East peace a priority, using the papal megaphone to slow a rush to war in Syria, recognize Palestinian statehood and attempt to protect Christians in the region. Showing his commitment to engage in even the most controversial political crises, Francis is expected to highlight the hot-button issues of immigration and the environment on his upcoming trip to the United States. 

Bringing all churches to unity

Francis’ progress towards ecumenism—interactions between Christian communities with the goal of uniting in a single organization—has been dramatic. Emerging from an “ecumenical winter” brought about when Benedict drew a firm line between Catholicism and all other denominations and religions by labeling them “defective,” Francis has steered his church on a different course, reaching out to followers of virtually every religion, secularists and even atheists. Celebrated catchphrases like “Who am I to judge?” have thawed positions as Francis has both disarmed and stirred the curiosity of religious opponents.

“The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters,” he recently proclaimed at a mass, “is a testimony which cries out to be heard. It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians!” 

This echoes a 2013 interview when Francis stated, “For me ecumenism is a priority. Today we have the ecumenism of blood. In some countries they kill Christians because they wear a cross or have a Bible, and before killing them they don’t ask if they’re Anglicans, Lutherans, Catholics or Orthodox” (“Blood and Ecumenism,” The Economist, Feb. 17, 2015). reported, “Pope Francis has said that it’s the devil himself who keeps evangelicals, Catholics, and Christians from other denominations divided.”

The first item on Francis’ ecumenical agenda is to heal the great schism with the Greek Orthodox. In June 2014, while the world’s media were focused on Francis bringing together the Israeli and Palestinian presidents in Rome to jointly pray for peace, few paid much attention to the fact that Francis had invited Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople—his counterpart in the Greek Orthodox faith and a man he has called “his dear brother”—to join him as a geopolitical and ecumenical partner. 

Just weeks before, Francis had dined with Bartholomew after praying together in the notoriously contentious Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and shocked many when he bent down to kiss the patriarch’s hand and spoke of unity. 

Months after the event in the Vatican, Shimon Peres returned to Rome to propose the launch of a United Nations of World Religions, telling an Italian newsmagazine, “For the first time in history, the Holy Father is a respected leader, valued as such by the diverse faiths and their exponents.” Peres added that “he’s truly the only one who can lead this project.” 

Francis has been relentlessly reaching out to the Protestant world, publicly conceding that divisions are the result of “sins on everyone’s part” and claiming “God has begun the miracle of unity.” With the 500-year anniversary of Martin Luther’s revolt and the beginning of the Reformation approaching in 2017, Francis has quietly been laying the groundwork with a wide swath of Protestant churches for a joint declaration—signed previously by Catholics and Lutherans in 1999—to resolve differences on salvation and works. 

Whether turning toward Mecca and praying with the Grand Mufti in Istanbul, conferring warmly with American megachurch pastors Joel Osteen and Rick Warren, or exchanging skull caps over lunch with Episcopal “brother bishops,” Francis is making waves as he works toward his goal of ecumenical unity.

What next for the “pope of surprises”?

A savvy politician who has reanimated the papacy and appears determined to bring historic change to the Vatican, Francis has proclaimed, “If the Church is alive, it must always surprise.”

Having carefully developed a reputation as a “pope of surprises,” Francis has many wondering as to his next shocking announcement. Will there be a shift on doctrines of marriage, family or contraception that would be lauded by the secular Western world? Could the drive for ecumenical unity be propelled by an elimination of clerical celibacy? Or might other surprises be in store? 

Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:4-5 and 23-25 and Paul’s instruction in Galatians 1:6-9: Watch and discern the times, understand the things prophesied to happen, and don’t be deceived by anyone proclaiming a different gospel!

Read more in our Life, Hope & Truth articles “The Kingdom of God: A Message Christianity Ignores” and “What Is Babylon?

About the Author

Neal Hogberg

Neal Hogberg is a member of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, and attends the Dallas, Texas, congregation.

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