One difference between Pope Francis and his predecessors: He doesn't give speeches. He talks.
At events in late November and early December, the pattern was the
same: Meeting with a group, the pope sat among them, gave no prepared
remarks, but conversed freely and at length.
Describing the experience of meeting Francis, Honduran Cardinal Óscar
Rodríguez Maradiaga said that "to speak with the pope face to face is a
The pope has a constant "volcanic flow of ideas" and "loves to open
doors and windows and be in dialogue," Rodríguez said Dec. 4 at a book
launch event a few blocks east of St. Peter's Basilica.
Thirteen of the Netherlands' bishops were among those in December to
witness the new papal experience, when they met Francis Dec. 2 for their
"ad limina," a formal visit bishops around the world make every five
years to report to the pope on their dioceses.
At a small church dedicated to the Dutch community in Rome Dec. 3,
Auxiliary Bishop Jan Hendriks of Haarlem-Amsterdam spoke with NCR
about the experience. He said that Francis' style represented "a
different way" of having an "ad limina" visit compared with his
The pontiff and the Dutch bishops, Hendriks said, sat in a circle
together. While the pope had a prepared text, 14 men instead spoke for
about 90 minutes freely, with Francis answering a range of questions --
including how best to handle clergy sex abuse and how to go forward in
At one point, Francis told the group that the Vatican must continue
reforms undertaken by the Catholic church in the 1960s and '70s.
Implementation of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council is only half
complete, Hendriks recalled the pontiff saying.
"We have been implementing the council only halfway," Hendriks recalled
from the pope's words. "Half of the work has still to be done."
Likewise, several participants in a Nov. 29 meeting between the pope
and the heads of male religious orders around the world said they found
Francis almost unbelievably open and willing to dialogue with them --
even cracking spur-of-the-moment jokes.
That meeting was between Francis and 120 leaders of the Union of
Superiors General, the main international umbrella group for men's
communities. Francis is a member of the Society of Jesus, and Fr. Adolfo
Nicolás, the global head of the Jesuits, is the current president of
the superiors' group.
Spanning three hours, the meeting between Francis and the superiors had
no official prepared text. A brief Vatican release following the
meeting outlined some of the basics of the conversation, saying Francis
called religious life a "prophecy" and that consecrated women and men
can "wake up the world."
But participants in the meeting, who asked to speak on condition of
anonymity because it was a private gathering, said it was much more
personal. The pope, one participant said, even fielded a question about
why the Vatican does not allow brothers to serve in an order's top
Responding to the question, the participant recalled, the pope said he
had visited one of the Vatican's offices recently to ask about that
possibility and was told the dicastery was working on a document on the
matter, "but it was not yet mature."
"Well, then it must grow and become mature," the pope reportedly told
superiors he had said to the member of the Vatican office.
The issue of a brother leading a religious order was last in the U.S.
public spotlight in 2009, when the Vatican vetoed the Maryknoll Fathers
and Brothers' election of Br. Wayne Fitzpatrick as regional superior for
the United States.
In previous instances, the Vatican has said that in religious orders
containing priests and lay brothers, priests must exercise formal
authority because of the church's understanding of apostolic succession.
Another participant in the superiors' meeting said at one point Francis
also joked about the roles of theologians and lawyers in the church,
saying that "moral theologians lose modesty; canon lawyers lose time."
After the pope told the superiors that 2015 would be a year dedicated
to consecrated life, one participant said several in the room thanked
him for making the declaration.
Francis, the participant said, then pointed at Cardinal João Braz de
Aviz and Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, the prefect and secretary
at the Vatican's congregation for religious respectively, saying the
idea was theirs. "When you put these two together, they're a public
danger," the participant recalled the pope joking, mentioning that they
come up with many helpful ideas.
Rodríguez spoke about the pope Dec. 4 at an event celebrating a new
book-length version of the wide-ranging interview between Francis and an
Italian Jesuit priest. Sixteen Jesuit publications around the world
printed the interview in September.
The book, La mia porta è sempre aperta ("My door is always open"), was released in November by a publishing house that also owns one of Italy's largest newspapers.
Rodríguez, archbishop of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa and
coordinator of the Council of Cardinals, reflected on the pope's
spirituality, both from personal experience and from Jesuit Fr. Antonio
Spadaro's interview with Francis.
Rodríguez said for the pope, spirituality "is made of human faces,"
like those of Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, the Virgin Mary, and St.
Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order.
One of the "pillars" of Francis' spirituality is discernment, Rodríguez said.
Tying such discernment to the role of the Council of Cardinals,
Rodríguez said, "Many think that the reforms and changes can happen in
However, "the pope says we always need time, time to put the real
foundations of a real change, and effective change," Rodríguez said.
The pope's spirituality was also in full sight at his meeting with the Dutch bishops, according to Hendriks.
Their meeting, the auxiliary bishop said, opened with Utrecht Cardinal
Willem Eijk reading a report the Dutch bishops had prepared on the state
of the church in their country. As part of that report, Eijk mentioned
that they are preparing to close about two-thirds of the country's 1,500
parishes by the year 2020.
The pope, Hendriks said, did not reply with specifics regarding the
Dutch circumstances, but instead likened their situation to Old
Testament readings on how the people of Israel responded to the
destruction of the temple, historically the holiest site of the Jewish
"They would be very sad, and I think you must be very sad also because of this situation," Francis reportedly said.
"I would like to encourage you not to be sad," Hendriks recounted the
pope as saying. "Never be immersed in feelings of sadness, but be
hopeful people and look forward to the future."
The Dutch parish-closing plan has garnered controversy in the country,
with lay Catholics in several dioceses alleging the scope of the
closings is unnecessarily wide and is being undertaken without enough
consultation of laypeople.
Separate groups of Dutch Catholics launched petitions ahead of the "ad
limina" visit, asking that Francis directly address the situation or
even intervene in their bishops' plans.
One group released a 17-page report concluding that the Dutch bishops
had "shown a startling indifference toward members of the lay faithful,
who have been denied any voice in the church."
The group calls itself Bezield Verband -- roughly "Inspired
Togetherness" in Dutch -- and its report included signatures of about 60
prominent current and retired Dutch theologians.
Hendriks said the pope "did not say whether what we did or wanted to do
was right or wrong. But he stressed very much that we should share the
sentiments of the people who have had their church closed down."
"He stressed most of all that we should be open and try to be in
contact with people and try to use the pastoral opportunities there are
to be in contact with the people and to transmit the faith," the bishop
In mentioning the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, Hendriks said the pope cited specifically Lumen Gentium, the council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.
"His first thought was of the church," Hendriks said. "That means he
thinks the reform of the church is only halfway done, that is clear."
At one point during the conversation with Francis, Hendriks said he
mentioned to the pope how popular he is in the Netherlands, saying he is
"many times on the news, which is not something we have had in the last
"Let us put aside what we think about this," Hendriks said Francis responded. "But use it. Use it to spread the Gospel."
Overall, Hendriks said, the meeting felt like a retreat. While tough
subjects were addressed, the pope conveyed a "spiritual atmosphere," he
"Not so much of structures or of governing or politics or whatever but more spiritual radiance," he said.