Pope Francis through the eyes of a ‘buen amigo’

Father Carlo Maria Galli of Argentina poses for a photo at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ building in Washington April 6. CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn
Father Carlo Maria Galli of Argentina poses for a photo at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ building in Washington April 6.
CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

On the day Amoris Laetitia was released, I attended a private lunch hosted by former Ambassador to the Holy See Miguel Diaz here in Chicago with Father Carlos Maria Galli, an Argentinian theological advisor and close personal friend of Pope Francis. The meeting came in the midst of Father Galli’s first tour of America at various universities and dioceses. Chicago’s Archbishop Blase Cupich is also widely viewed as a key figure in Francis’ pontificate, and is to date the most prominent of his U.S. episcopal appointments. So it made sense for Father Galli to visit the Windy City and its Jesuit university, where he gave a public lecture on the Argentinian “theology of the people” (teologia del pueblo), which has been incredibly influential in Pope Francis’ vision of the church, evident in his public speeches and priorities.

Before his public lecture, Father Galli shared with us a number of anecdotes and interpretive keys to understand the Holy Father better, both in terms of the man and what he views as his mandate.

One of such keys dates back three years to when the archbishop of Buenos Aires, the first (and Father Galli joked the last) Jesuit pope, chose to take the name Francis. Father Galli claimed three intersecting lines informed this choice. Given Father Galli’s intimate knowledge of Pope Francis as a close collaborator and “buen amigo,” it is worth pondering his suggestions closely. He asked us, what is Francis of Assisi most known for? First and most importantly he was called both il Poverello (“the little poor one”) and Alter Christus (“another Christ”). Pope Francis famously wants a “poor church for the poor” that reflects the love of Christ for the forgotten. So much of his vision intersects with Gustavo Gutierrez’s observation that the prime theological issue of our day is not those who are viewed as non-believers, but those viewed as disposable non-persons.

Second, Francis’ medieval namesake was renowned for his commitment to peace. The saint’s motto is Pax et Bonum, “Peace and Goodness.” This extended both into Francis of Assisi’s attempts to build relationships based on holiness and mystical spirituality with the Muslim caliph in Egypt, and his numerous examples of ending civil strife and feuds in villages throughout Italy. Echoes of this peacebuilding find their way into the contemporary Francis’ writings, comments and gestures.

Lastly, the first Francis sought to build fraternity not only among peoples but also with all of creation. He repeatedly sung the praises of God’s gift of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. The pope’s attention to “our common home” and the interrelationship between the degradation of the environment and the poorest of the poor permeate his call to missionary discipleship in various areas.

Rooted in some of Pope Francis’s favorite documents like Lumen Gentium, Evangelii Nuntiandi, and Gaudete in Domino, Father Galli pointed out that the spirituality and devotion of the “people” of the church are at the top of his “inverted pyramid” ecclesiology, with their bishops and clergy supporting and undergirding them, and his role of the Servant of the Servants of God as a foundational, but ministerial role at the bottom.

Just as Francis of Assisi was called to “rebuild God’s church,” the Holy Father feels called to reform structures that inhibit such a view, most notably perhaps the Curia and bureaucratic structures of the church. Speaking in Spanish, Father Galli said something that can be roughly translated as follows: “Normally the sede vacante (intervening period between popes) marks the death of a pope. Francis is trying to make sure that Benedict’s resignation and its sede vacante period marked not the death of a pope, but the dying of a particular form of the papal office.” This is not a criticism of his predecessors who he obviously respects and values. But it speaks rather to his re-imagining offices and aspects of Catholic structures and ways of proceeding that do not come from God, but from human history. Father Galli countered charges that Francis is not a theologian by saying that pastoral theology is a legitimate expression of talking about God, for “theology is not simply systematic theology.” Bringing the spiritual mind and outreaching touch of the pastor (think of its etymological ties to the “Good Shepherd”) to the most central role in Catholicism is the charge which inspires and challenges our Francis every day.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University Chicago.