Leading With Mercy: A Reflection on Ten Years of Pope Francis’s Pontificate

Leading With Mercy: A Reflection on Ten Years of Pope Francis’s Pontificate March 14, 2023


Ten years ago, on March 13th, 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, the first Pope to don the name of Francis – after Il Poverello, as well as the first Jesuit and Latin American Pope in the history of the Catholic Church. Over the past decade, Pope Francis has become known for his unique leadership style and vision, leaving an indelible mark on the Church and the world.

This style is distinguished especially by a desire to be close to the people, to listen to their concerns, learn from their experiences, and to be present to them in their struggles. He has eschewed many of the trappings of papal power and privilege, choosing to live in the simple and austere surroundings of the Vatican guesthouse rather than the grandeur of the Apostolic Palace. His pastoral style is captured best in his memorable phrase, “The shepherd should smell like the sheep.”

A Man of Vatican II

In many ways, Pope Francis’ pontificate represents a dynamic continuation of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, with an emphasis on greater participation and collaboration among the lay faithful, and a deeper engagement with the world.

This emphasis on Vatican II as a source of inspiration for his pontificate, and its full implementation as something he sees as a large part of his mission is no doubt impacted by the fact that he was elected directly following the 50th anniversary of the council – a council which he believes will take about 100 years to fully establish in the life of the Church.

Being elected on this 50th anniversary has ensured that he would continue the best parts of the legacy of his predecessors St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, while other reforms have been singular initiatives of his own, such as the reform of the Vatican Bank, and the bureaucracy known as the Curia to make it more transparent and accountable. This is in addition to responding comprehensively to the sexual abuse scandal of recent decades. He has also reshaped the Cardinalate through his appointment of 83 of the 132 cardinals eligible to vote in the next papal conclave.

A Synodal Church

His vision for the future is captured well in his call for a “synodal Church,” one that is characterized by a shared journey and a listening attitude, where the whole People of God is involved in the discernment of the Holy Spirit’s voice.

The ecclesiology of Henri de Lubac, a notable 20th century Catholic theologian, has had a significant influence on Pope Francis in this regard. Readers of Pope Francis’ writings will be well aware of his assiduous references to de Lubac’s work, especially his ecclesiological works –  The Church: Paradox and Mystery, The Splendor of the Church, and The Motherhood of the Church. This has particularly influenced his vision for a church that is more open and dynamic in its engagement with the outside world.

De Lubac was a Peritus at Vatican II, who advocated for a renewed understanding of the Church’s relationship with the world, emphasizing the importance of the Church as a visible sign of God’s love and mercy in the world and seeking to shake the Church out of its post-reformation defensive stance in order to better fulfill the Church’s call to mission. De Lubac rightly recognized this mission as the most fundamental reality of the Church’s existence and it’s ultimate purpose – a theme that Pope Francis has deeply internalized and which has been embodied most definitively in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, which he has called the program for his whole pontificate.

De Lubac’s ecclesiology emphasized the idea of the Church as a “mystery” that cannot be fully understood or contained by human concepts or structures. He argued that the Church is called to be a sign of God’s presence and a source of grace for all people, regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs. This vision of the Church as a universal and characteristically inclusive community, has profoundly impacted Pope Francis, who has emphasized the importance of reaching out to those on the margins and building bridges with other faith communities.

The Church as a Missionary Society

In this way, Pope Francis has sought to offer a corrective to a vision of the Church that emphasizes Communio at the expense of Missio, recognizing instead that teleologically, Communio follows Missio since it stems from it. However, this isn’t to say that Missio does not draw strength from Communio. A proposed false dichotomy vis-a-vis the opposition of these values or an inversion of their hierarchy works against the Church in its most Catholic (Greek for universal) dimension which is always expressed on Earth as an ever-expansive missionary society.

Pope Francis has additionally drawn on de Lubac’s writings particularly in his vision for a Church that is more welcoming and compassionate, thus aiding this cause of Missio. He has emphasized the importance of the Church’s mission to serve the needs of all people, and has called on Catholics to be dynamic agents of social change and involvement in all aspects of culture, business, politics, and society.

A Man of the People

Pope Francis has also been a vocal advocate for interreligious dialogue, and has sought to collaboratively pursue a more peaceful and just world, most notably recognized in his involvement in the Abu Dhabi Accords; his continuation of the Assisi Interfaith gatherings, begun by Pope Paul VI, and carried out through subsequent pontificates; and through his emphasis on finding shared values among those of different cultures, – even welcoming dialogue with atheists of good will.

This pontificate has also been marked by his call for a “poor Church for the poor” which has challenged the Church to take seriously the needs and concerns of those on the margins of society. He has introduced new terms to the Catholic lexicon, such as “synodality,” “accompaniment,” and “throwaway culture,” and his identification with ecological concerns and issues concerning the whole person – issues shared by many both inside and outside the Church reflects his deep personalist philosophy and commitment to a Church that is engaged with the world and doesn’t shun the challenges it poses.

In Retrospect

As we look back on the ten years of his pontificate, it is clear that Pope Francis has left a profound mark on the Church and the world. His emphasis on mercy, care for creation, and justice for the oppressed through the corporal works of mercy (which he sees as a privileged encounter with Christ) – have reshaped the priorities of the Church and inspired a new generation of Catholics. His legacy will continue to shape the Church for years to come, as we strive to live out his call to be a Church that is close to the people, rooted in tradition yet open to the challenges of the present.


Those who are interested in learning more about this Pope of the People would do well to read any of his popular books such as Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future; any of his numerous encyclicals and exhortations including those such as Laudato Si, Fratelli Tutti or my personal favorite Gaudete et Exsultate – On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World; His scriptural commentaries on the Gospels; his little known meditations on traditional Catholic prayers such as the Ave Maria and the Our Father; or as a recommendation for more scholarly types, the excellent Pope Francis’ Theology series, edited by Robert Repole and endorsed by the late Pope Benedict XVI.

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