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Making sense of Pope Francis’s non-program program

There is an important sense in which Francis is and always has been an open book.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass in the Megaron Concert Hall in Athens, Greece, Dec. 5, 2021. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

When it comes to Pope Francis, what’s the Big Picture? It’s a question a friendly acquaintance put to me, roughly, this past week. I was surprised by my inability to articulate an answer that was satisfactory to either of us. Francis’s weekend in Cyprus and Greece has helped to bring the matter into focus, so, here’s another stab at an answer.

There is an important sense in which Pope Francis is and always has been an open book.

He’d already been at it four-and-a-half years, though, when Fr. Antonio Spadaro SJ – one of the churchmen who appeared to have the Holy Father’s ear during the early years especially, and has continued to enjoy a good measure of confidence – admitted that Pope Francis didn’t have a plan.

I do not [want to reform the Church],” Fr. Spadaro quoted Pope Francis as telling him. “I just want to place Christ more and more at the center of the Church. It will be He who makes the reforms.”

I have little interest in gainsaying that, to be perfectly frank, and less in measuring the success of his non-program program.

We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised,” Pope Francis told Fr. Spadaro in 2013, “but rather on starting long-run historical processes.” Francis went on to say that “start[ing] processes” is better and more fruitful work than “occupy[ing] spaces,” because, “God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history.”

This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics,” Pope Francis continued, “and it requires patience, waiting.”

It also means having no plan, hence nothing against which to measure success and precious little with which to gauge the reasonability of whatever actions a leader takes. Whatever else it does, it creates conditions in which a leader may dismiss any and all criticism of his conduct in office as personal attack, sour grapes, typical institutional reactionism and griping and sniping, or a combination of those and just about any other unflattering and unsavory sorts of grousing.


History will judge Francis, and God will, too. One hopes that both will judge him kindly. As I told an amazing group of young students this past week, history is always happening, right now. That’s what the pope’s weekend in Cyprus and Greece reminded me, and that’s what helped bring this business into focus.

The clip of an Orthodox priest heckling Pope Francis with calls of “Heretic!” outside the residence of the Orthodox Archbishop of Athens, where Francis was going to deliver remarks, was especially helpful.

How and why?

Writing in these pages, Adam A.J. DeVille noted that one elderly cleric heckling the pope was a far cry from the days of street protests, including burnings-in-effigy of the “Great Crusader” from Rome, which preceded Pope St. John Paul II’s historic visit in 2001.

In 2001,” DeVille recalled, “matters were so fraught that it was an open question as to whether the pope would even be able to pray the Lord’s Prayer in private with the primate of the Greek Orthodox Church.”

By contrast in 2021, “[Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens] praised the pope in fulsome terms and Greek Orthodox commentators also extolled Catholic efforts of the last two decades towards rapprochement.”

Pope Francis has made some grand gestures, like 2019’s gift of relics of St. Peter to the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew. In a letter to Bartholomew, Francis said that the gift was “intended to be a confirmation of the journey that our Churches have made in drawing closer to one another: a journey at times demanding and difficult, yet one accompanied by evident signs of God’s grace.”

In that same letter, Pope Francis said he sensed that the idea of the gift came to him “from the Holy Spirit, who in so many ways prompts Christians to regain that full communion for which our Lord Jesus Christ prayed on the eve of his glorious Passion.”

Pope Francis secured a meeting with the Russian Patriarch, Kirill, in 2016, which saw a joint declaration issued. It wasn’t anything earth-shattering in terms of its contents, but that it happened at all was – and is – a very big deal.

Francis, in other words, has gone where the Spirit moved him and done what the Spirit moved him to do. He’s also achieved some pretty significant milestones in ecumenical politics.

The Church that Pope Francis governs has a whole lot of work to do before her house is in order. Frequently, he seems to have taken the truism, “History is always happening, right now!” as the practical equivalent of “History is always going to happen anyway,” and shrugged his shoulders, and got on with his life.

That’s made for powerful imagery, and some high drama, but it has left him – and us – arguably ill-positioned to exploit the opportunities created in the moment. Others will have to clean up the mess he’s made, but that appears to be part of the design – such as it is – as well. Sometimes the answer to the question about the Big Picture and what it is, is that there isn’t one.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 190 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. Altieri notes that with Pope Francis’ non-program, it will fall to others to clean things up later. What are these things? A few questions:

    First, specifically, with a synodal form (2021-2023) the Church in the West might find greater structural harmony with the Eastern Churches. But, in the West itself what might be the damage to the harmony between the Faith and morals? Will the synodal compendium silently submerge within the broad process itself (sensus fidei: unanimous participation?) such concrete teachings as Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor? The German synodal way in bubble wrap?

    Second, in the synodal guidelines why is the traditional “family” not even mentioned among so many social-science identity groups solicited in the vademecum: “…women, the handicapped, refugees, migrants, the elderly, people who live in poverty, Catholics who rarely or never practice their faith, etc. …children and youth [….] people who have left the practice of the faith, people of other faith traditions, people of no religious belief, etc.”?

    Third, to what extent might the non-program action focus demote the interior life and the contemplative orders? The Preparatory Document for the synodal way asks, “[h]ow do we integrate the contribution of Consecrated Men and Women?” Integrate?

    Fourth, what does it mean now that ordained priests (alter Christi!) have been nuanced as “presiders” and now bishops are to function “primarily as facilitators” in the synodal process? The successors of the apostles?

    Fifth, likewise and to what extent is the incarnate Christ to become mostly a role model: Why in the synodal guidelines is the Christ referred to in the language of generic Christianity—i.e., the “gospel [values] of Jesus” rather than the incarnate Christ witnessed in the Gospels?

    Sixth, why have papal ghostwriters failed to reconcile issues of global solidarity (an “integral ecology”) with an earlier and higher “integral humanism”—Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate (2009) and layman Jacques Maritain (Christian Humanism (1949)? Meaning: “man in all his natural grandeur and weakness, in the entirety of his wounded being inhabited by God, in the full reality of nature, sin and sanctity.” Doctrinal stuff.

    In the United States, at least, is it actually the work of the Holy Spirit to affirm “Eucharistic coherence” within the same timeline as the synod on synodality? Both together, but always the irreducible difference between what the universal Church is and what the Church does. A boundary (!) to synodality’s “endless journey” of possible Continental Drift?

    St. Augustine spoke more clearly to this boundary (and there are boundaries!): “We can say things differently, but we can’t say different things.”

  2. From St. Paul to St. Augustine, we have the teaching that God may bring greater good from evil. That’s one take-away from the Big-Picture Non-Program Program. The BPNPP may insinuate itself in dark corners and may create a dirty stench. Meanwhile, Advent lights up the hearts, souls, heaven, and earth with its stronger, most lovely force.

    May God have mercy and bless the pope so that he may share and spread the joy. If not, God will go on without him.

  3. We have then inscrutable Italians. “I was surprised by my inability to articulate an answer” (Altieri). Whether we agree with A Spadaro SJ he’s an excellent theologian, his famed 2+2=5 is widely misunderstood. Theology is not math, despite casuists. There are exceptions to rules [as long as they remain exceptions not the rule as it seems in Amoris].
    Flummoxed is a great sounding word, which is where many of us are insofar as Francis’ program. Fr Spadaro lays it out clearly insofar as a plan, leaving the envisioned completion of VatII, inclusive of doctrine [which is why Pope Francis loosened the hawsers in Amoris] to God, the Holy Spirit as already stated regarding revelation and direction for participants during the great, forever Synod on Synodality. Somewhere he said years back that he wanted to disrupt everything so the Holy Spirit could sort it all back as it should be. Consequently, voting on issues of discussion is discouraged except in rare instances, any finding presented to Francis is not promised action.
    His pontificate is effectively relegated within the Magisterial range of the voiceless bishops. To date Francis’ foreign policy has been friendships, mutual agreements [Dohar], a willingness for Catholicism to chest beat taking all the blame, regardless of justice [usually perceived as an annoying obstacle to Fratelli Tutti togetherness as he did in Athens.
    So there is a program amid the confusion. Enormous, earth shaking, challenging the heavens. And the vecchia, amazingly forte Pope Francis is in charge for better, as is his stated intent, or for the many shaking in their traditional boots for worse.

    • As addendum I add today’s Office of Readings, that gives us Saint John of the Cross and his opinion, or testament of faith: “But now that faith is rooted in Christ [in contrast to the prophecies] and the law of the gospel has been proclaimed in this time of grace, there is no need to seek him in the former manner, nor for him so to respond. By giving us, ashe did, his Son, his only Word, he has in that one Word said everything. There is no need for any further revelation” (in The Ascent to Mount Carmel).

    • And lest I get chastised by a Francis devotee Pope Francis isn’t vecchia [feminine for old] rather he’s vecchio nd quite able at 84.

  4. “Others will have to clean the mess he made.” And indeed it is a big mess! Interesting that he always blames the mess on the Holy Spirit. Is Pope Francis going to make a mess a new gift of the Holy Spirit?

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Making sense of Pope Francis’s non-program program – Via Nova Media
  2. Papal pressers, growing chatter, and altars of hypocrisy – Catholic World Report – The Old Roman

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