The pope of the peripheries

“Peripheries” means “outskirts” or “margins,” and it appears quite often in Pope Francis’ distinctively Latin American vocabulary. It stood out, for instance, in the brief intervention he made at the preconclave congregation in which the assembled cardinals discussed the situation of the Church and its urgent tasks. To appreciate how Francis uses the term is to understand who he is, what kind of Church he envisions, and why he has come to the Philippines at this time.

The cardinal from Argentina spoke from scanty notes, taking up less time than the five minutes he was allotted. Because this was a closed-door consultation, there is no official documentation of its proceedings. But what the cardinal from Argentina had to say moved a brother cardinal from Cuba so much that the latter begged him to write it down so he could post it in the website of his diocese. That is the original source of the excerpts we quote here.

In terse but elegant language, Jorge Mario Bergoglio offered an unusual narrative of the Church’s place in our time. “Reference has been made to evangelization…. This is the Church’s reason for being…. The Church is called to come out from itself and to go to the peripheries, not just the geographical but also the existential peripheries: those of the mystery of sin, of suffering, of injustice, of ignorance and lack of religion, those of thought and those of every kind of misery.”

The congregation fell into a deep silence, not expecting such compelling eloquence to proceed from words uttered with disarming simplicity. Then the thought struck them: An exhausted Eurocentric Church was hardly in a position “to go to the peripheries.” It had enormous problems of its own, not the least of which was a dysfunctional central administration hobbled by all kinds of bureaucratic ailments, corruption, incompetence, and leaks in its record-keeping and communication systems.

No one knew this more profoundly than Pope Benedict XVI himself, who had just taken the bold and unprecedented step of resigning from the papacy to give way to a more energetic leadership. He might have had Bergoglio in mind, but the ball was now in the hands of the cardinals.

As in any institution, it is never easy for those at the center of power to voluntarily yield to new blood. They do everything to control the transition so as to preserve their privileges while projecting the illusion of change. The Vatican was no different. Those who followed its affairs knew who were the kingmakers at every conclave, and what interests they represented.

Cardinal Bergoglio was neither in the pope watchers’ roster of “papabile,” nor was he in any kingmaker’s list. But his measured speech that day had stunned everyone in the congregation, and for the first time the cardinals thought they caught a glimpse of the Holy Spirit at work in this man’s palpable charisma and holiness.

What made the future pope’s narrative different was the way he connected the problems facing the Church to the task of evangelization. Austen Ivereigh, author of the wonderful book “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope,” describes it thus: “Bergoglio had given the cardinals a way forward: a reform that ran deeper than just ridding the Curia of corruption or improving governance, one that would recall the Church to its purpose and the source of its life.”

To Francis, those wellsprings of the Church are to be found precisely in the existential peripheries—in the poor, the suffering, the oppressed, in those who are trapped in “the mystery of sin.” He calls them “God’s holy people,” they who bring back the Church to its first mission—to offer them the Gospel of hope and redemption even before they ask for it, and, in so doing, to rekindle the joy and the passion that comes with the sharing of one’s faith.

These ideas are not new. His predecessor, Benedict, articulated them with great luminosity in every encyclical he wrote. But the frail and shy German professor lacked the personal exuberance and charisma needed to make them dance. Francis had these traits and more: He had the experience. Himself a recruit from the periphery—a pastor of the poor—he had navigated the Church through the turbulent waters of Latin American dictatorship and revolution, balancing the claims of radical activism against the distinct commitments of Christianity. Our faith, he insisted, is not an ideology, thus drawing the line between the Church’s transcendental vision and what he called “spiritual worldliness.”

Again, these are ideas that had been richly developed by Benedict. I have read most of his writings and have always been struck by the modernity of his perspective. But, at the same time, I have felt baffled by his warnings against modernity. He recognizes that the modern world has been fragmented into many different functional spheres that are autonomous from one another, each operating according to their specialized rationalities. Then he rails against the relativism that flows from this compartmentalized state of affairs, arguing that the religious vision can and must offer a view of the whole.

This sounds good on text, but how does it work in practice? Benedict thinks the answer lies in the Church’s prophetic role, which it can only effectively play, he says, if the clergy does not get entangled in worldly matters like the pursuit of power, influence, or money. He says the Church’s proper task is to educate consciences.

Francis clarifies and completes this vision by linking it to the need to reach out to the peripheries and to find God among the poor. Only in this way, he thinks, can the Church succeed in breaking out of its “self-referentiality,” its “theological narcissism,” its bureaucratic captivity, its weariness, and its ostentation.

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