I’ve spent the last several months working on this, and I’m finally able to share it.
To understand Pope Francis, we need to examine the role the consecrated life has om the entire Catholic Church. Specifically, how the spirituality of the five “Religious Orders” shapes the Church as a whole (from the Pope to the laity), and how this had specifically impacted not just this papacy, but recent ones as well.
There are five Orders within the Catholic Church.
- The Benedictines
- The Carmelites
- The Franciscans
- The Order of Preachers (aka the Dominicans)
- The Society of Jesus (aka the Jesuits)
Each of these five has unique qualities, and were founded for specific purposes with a specific visions and charisms by their founder. There’s unique schools of thought, discernment methods, approaches to theology, you name it. And some of these Orders sometimes have Second Orders and Third Orders, which only uses those terms on a chronological sense; the Third Orders are just as much members of the Orders as the First and Second, they were just founded third chronologically.
And sure there’s some similarities, but there’s a lot of distinctions. And although there are communities who are described as “an order”, they would be more correctly identified as either a “Society of Apostolic Life” or “Religious Congregation”, and their vision/charisms/methods flow from the five “main” Orders.
The Benedictines; stability, liturgy (such as Liturgy of the Hours), monasticism.
The Carmelites; the interior life, the healthy detachment from the self, reflecting
The Franciscans; “lunchbox Catholicism” (doing the work), fraternity, contemplation, communal voluntary poverty
The Dominicans; preaching from the pulpit, instructing others, analyzing theology and philosophy
The Jesuits; teaching, missionary work, discernment, analyzing
For centuries the Popes we have had lead the Church have been what one would call “Thomists”. “Thomism” is the term used to describe the use of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ systems and thought process, and generally adopting his theological constructs and philosophical approaches. Many Popes, theologians, and Saints have extolled the virtues of Aquinas, including ones that fit within a time period romanticized by a segment of Catholics, and with that comes a degree of uneasiness with the last few Popes. Meanwhile there is a segment of society as a whole (not just Catholics) who want there to be doctrinal changes (changes to doctrine), and find themselves frustrated when they hear what appears to be a “fresh voice” who still says “the same things” in a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” scenario.
There’s two reasons for this, with one being straightforward and the other being more nuanced. For the former; after centuries of Thomists promoting Thomism, we’ve had a run of Popes that simply weren’t Thomists, and their way of doing things either was one we haven’t seen in centuries, or in some cases not at all.
Which ties into the latter. The Orders and other communities, frankly, were not living in accordance to what their founder would have wanted. Franciscans owning property and not living in community, Benedictines moving around, Dominicans refusing to preach, all sorts of things. Eventually, things on both fronts started to change.
It began with Saint Pope Pius X, who on one hand extolled with virtues of Thomism, then on the other hand drastically streamlined and simplified Liturgy of the Hours. If you’re looking for a group who streamlines and simplifies things, look no further than the Franciscans, which adds context as to why the Secular Franciscan Saint Pope Pius X would have the motivation to do what he did.
You fast forward a bit, and things become complicated due to there being a Great Depression and not one but *two* World Wars. Things come to a head with Saint Pope Paul VI, who recognized that things reached the point where *the founders of the Orders would be unable to even join them if they were alive*, issued a landmark decree called Perfectae Caritatis; in which he made is *very* clear that all Orders, societies, congregations, associations, were to go back to the original vision/charisms of their founder. Period. This resulted in some drastic changes, as some were drastically removed from where they were supposed to be.
Following Paul VI, we have Saint Pope John Paul II. Actor, athlete, scholar, he had a unique approach to things. It manifested in ways like speaking up against the Soviet Union, writing about bioethics, and building bridges with other faiths. There’s a common theme of his papacy, which is why I refer to him as “the Pope of Hope”; which is solidified by is book titled “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”. Now, one may ask at this point “what makes him so different? Why would he focus on those things? Why would he communicate the way he did? Why was he so different”? Because JP2 wasn’t a Thomist. He was a Third Order Disclaced Carmelite.
You move forward a bit more, and we have Pope Benedict XVI. Some made jokes, some had expectations due to his previous role he had as a Cardinal. Yet he surprised many with his demeaner and approach. He was thoughtful, he spoke with measured words filled with love and charity. There was very little of what he said that was an accident. In impromptu social situations he came across a sa bit awkward, but genuine. He wrote several documents on the liturgy, and from what I understand he remained very active in helping form positive Catholic/Jewish relations even after becoming Pope. It was quite different than what was expected, and it caught many people off guard. It didn’t catch me off guard though, because I remembered what he used to do in the years leading up to being a Cardinal; you can take a professor out of the classroom, but they’re still a professor. And when it came to how he handled things and his thought process, it was distinctly not Thomist.
The first clue is the name he picked; Benedict, which was highly appropriate in hindsight considering his writings on the liturgy (Benedictines are known for their devotion and reverence to the liturgy). The second clue is whose writings had the most influence him during his formation as a priest; Saint Bonaventure, who he did a marvelous three-part sermon on, and to whose home town he went on a pilgrimage to. It should come as no surprise then that the greatest living expert in Franciscan (and Augustinian, interestingly) spirituality is BXVI, the “Pope of Teaching”.
Which brings us to Pope Francis, who is the most polarizing Pope we have had in some time. People love/hate his off the cuff remarks. People will latch onto something he says and not look at the follow-up comments or writings he’ll make after. What everyone has been failing to take into account is Ignatian pedagogy mirrors the 3rd mode of Ignatian Discernment, in which every facet is analyzed. That includes looking at orthodox/heterodox. As a result, if you catch them mid-thought or mid-processing, you might here some stuff that gives cause to concern. You need to give them time to work things through, just like you would if they were using Ignatian discernment. So, if you catch an extrovert on an airplane, you’re going to get some interesting thoughts; and the follow-up could be different because they reached the destination of their process.
Which is why it might look and sound like Pope Francis is open to changing doctrine, but then when you look at his writings as a whole it’s clear that’s very much not the case.
Meanwhile, the Jesuits, like the Franciscans, have a long and storied missionary history. The Franciscans have long adopted the customs of others (see; the founder and also Max Kolbe), Jesuits are the same. Sometimes, you need to meet people where they’re at, which is what the “Pope of Mercy” has been doing, going so far to marry a couple on an airplane because that’s where “they were at”.
The state of the world now isn’t just in disarray, it’s pure chaos. We need leaders to lead us across the board, leaders who lead by example and lead with thoughts, words, and actions. Which is why after years of seeing him practice Ignatian methods and instructional style, we’re seeing a different approach from Pope Francis. Because you see, Pope Francis didn’t name himself after famed Jesuit Francis Xavier, he named himself after a different Francis, which will be made further evident after his next encyclical titled “Human Fraternity” gets released on October 4th. And who exactly emphasised fraternity and has whom October 3rd and 4th are significant?
The Troubadour from Assisi.
Pope Francis is showing us that we absolutely need to discern and analyze, however at some point the discernment is over, and the time for action is now. The time for the sacrifice of self, for charity in words and action.
And when you reach there, look no further than the Troubadour, to whom BXVI once referred to as the Mirror of Perfection.