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Expect more surprises from Pope Francis

The New York Times
Room for Debate
November 27, 2013
By Colleen Carroll Campbell

Q:What does Pope Francis’s exhortation tell us about his priorities and plans? What obstacles will he face?

Francis is a pope of surprises, a plainspoken, warm-hearted shepherd who has a habit of afflicting the comfortable even as he comforts the afflicted. In his wide-ranging apostolic exhortation this week, he pulls no punches, calling committed Catholics and nonbelievers alike to a searching examination of conscience.

“The Joy of the Gospel” covers a vast amount of territory. Topics range from the pope’s feisty critique of trickle-down economics to his re-affirmation of church teaching against abortion and his advice that long-winded priests learn from mothers of young children how to deliver homilies that are punchier and less pretentious. But the heart of the pope’s message is precisely what the title suggests: A reminder of the Gospel imperative that Christians live their faith with contagious joy, remaining always open to the surprising promptings of the Holy Spirit.

The third person of the Trinity gets top billing in Francis’s document. Again and again, the pope asks readers to reflect on how God’s still, small voice might be speaking in their lives, inviting them to turn away from their idols of money, power, career or comfort and rediscover the joy that comes from generous service to others and to God. Like the patron saint from whom he took his papal name, Francis harbors a passion for the poor, impatience with the ecclesial status quo and a burning desire to reawaken his fellow Catholics to the riches of a life spent “fearlessly open to the working of the Holy Spirit.”

The pope is pointed in his criticism of the tendency among Christians to take one aspect of the Gospel and run with it, to the exclusion of all others. Catholics who embrace the church’s social justice advocacy but evince embarrassment about the living faith that animates that advocacy come in for critique. So, too, do Catholics who embrace the moral teachings and liturgical traditions but ignore the needs of the poor and wind up trapped in “a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others.”

Whether calling out the totalitarian impulse of strident secularists who would banish religion from the public square or lamenting today’s chic, do-it-yourself spirituality that winds up imprisoning its practitioners in self-centeredness, Francis does not mince words. But even as the pope challenges readers with razor-sharp insights on some of the most intimate struggles of the human heart, he does not come off haughty or didactic. Perhaps that’s because “The Joy of the Gospel” is threaded throughout with Francis’s characteristic humility and copious reminders of God’s merciful, redeeming love.

This is the pope who, when asked in a recent interview to describe himself, said simply: “I am a sinner.” He is a pastor known for walking closely with his sheep, learning from them and listening to them. And as the pope notes near the end of his exhortation, the trials and uncertainty of the spiritual life are familiar to him. “Trust in the unseen can cause us to feel disoriented,” Francis writes. “It is like being plunged into the deep and not knowing what we will find. I myself have frequently experienced this. Yet there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting him enlighten, guide and direct us, leading us wherever he wills.”

If Francis has a plan or program for his pontificate, that’s probably a clear summary. Following the lead of a pope so devoted to following the promptings of the Holy Spirit, Catholics can surely expect more surprises to come.

Colleen Carroll Campbell
  • Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, print and broadcast journalist and former presidential speechwriter. Her books include her critically acclaimed journalistic study, The New Faithful, and her award-winning spiritual memoir, My Sisters the Saints, which has been published in Spanish, Portuguese, Polish and as an audiobook. Colleen's journalism credits include contributions to the New York Times, Washington Post, Christianity Today, First Things and America, and appearances on CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, ABC News, PBS and NPR. She has served as executive producer and anchor of EWTN News Nightly with Colleen Carroll Campbell, a television newscast airing worldwide on EWTN, the world’s largest religious media network, and as creator and host of EWTN’s Faith & Culture television and radio interview show. In 2013, she anchored EWTN’s live television coverage of the historic election and installation of Pope Francis in Rome. A former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and editorial writer and op-ed columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Colleen is the recipient of two honorary doctorates and numerous other awards for her work. She serves as a religious liberty consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and speaks to audiences across North America and Europe. Colleen lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children, whom she homeschools. Her website is

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