Today, Pope Francis will arrive from Cuba for his first visit to the United States. The head of the Catholic Church, Francis is the spiritual leader to more than one billion people around the globe and one of the most influential people on the planet. But why should evangelicals know basic facts about the pontiff? As Chris Castaldo has said, “whether we like it or not, the pope is, in a certain (global) sense, the single most significant Christian voice in the world.” (UPDATE: Please see the addendum at the end of this article.)
Here are nine things you should know about Pope Francis:
1. Francis was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1936 to an Italian immigrant father and a mother of Italian decent. He is the first pope from South America, and the first pope born outside Europe since Gregory III, who was born in modern-day Syria and elected in 731.
2. Francis studied philosophy at the Catholic University of Buenos Aires and also has a vocational certificate in chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires. He worked as a teacher of literature, psychology, philosophy, and theology before becoming the Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
3. Francis was ordained a Jesuit priest on Dec. 13, 1969, and is the first Jesuit pope. A Jesuit is a member of the Society of Jesus, a Catholic religious order founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola.
4. Francis served as Archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1998 to 2013. He developed a reputation for eschewing luxury as an example to others and to show solidarity with the poor. For example, instead of wearing the extravagant robes of his position, he would wear the more humble robes of a simple priest. He also used public transportation for local travel and lived in a small flat with an older priest rather than in the archbishop’s palace. Despite having access to a personal chef he also would make his own meals himself.
5. When he was elected to the papacy on March 13, 2013, Bergoglio took the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation,” the same created world “with which we don’t have such a good relationship.” No other pope has chosen the name Francis. (See also: 9 Things You Should Know About the Papacy)
6. In June 2015, Francis released Laudato Si’ a controversial encyclical on the environment that was directed to “every person living on the planet.” The goal and purpose of the document was “for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation that includes everyone, since the environment challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.” (You can find my section-by-section summary of the entire encyclical here.)
7. Two of Francis’s primary stated commitments are fighting poverty and increasing interfaith dialogue. In the 2011 book that records his conversations with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, On Heaven and Earth, Francis (nee Bergoglio) said:
Dialogue is born from an attitude of respect for the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say. It assumes that there is room in the heart for the person's point of view, opinion, and proposal. Dialogue entails a cordial reception, not a prior condemnation. In order to dialogue it is necessary to know how to lower the defenses, open the doors of the house, and offer human warmth.
8. During his visit to the U.S., from Tuesday, September 22 to Sunday, September 27, Francis will be attending various events in New York City, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. On Thursday he will become the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress.
9. Francis has said he doesn’t expect to have a long papacy: “I have the feeling that my pontificate will be brief — four or five years, even two or three.” Although he is generally considered in good health, he had part of one of his lungs removed after an accident at age 21. Because he has less respiratory reserve than someone with two intact lungs he may be at slightly higher risk of complications from influenza or more vulnerable to succumbing to pneumonia. At age 78, Franics is already older than most popes (the average age of death for popes from 1503 to 2005 was 74).
Addendum: In the comments and on social media, some people have criticized the article for portraying the pope in a “positive” light.
First, let me clarify my own position. Like every good Reformed Christian, I'm against the papacy. I think it is an institution that should not exist. I also not particularly fond of Francis. I think he promotes economic and environmental views that are harmful to all people, especially the poor.
But I also believe that my personal views about a person shouldn't require me to paint a person in the most negative light possible. I also don't think they paint Francis in a “positive light”—I think they are mostly neutral.
So what is the purpose of this article?
First, it provides specific information about what many evangelicals often think of as a generic figure. We tend to think of popes as interchangeable since they represent views (i.e., Catholicism) that we disagree with. But every pope is different and we may agree or disagree with them based on their individual experiences. By providing general background information (which many evangelicals may otherwise not know) it can help us form a more specific opinion about a person like Francis.
Take, for example, the fact that he has a degree in chemistry and taught literature, psychology, philosophy, and theology. That's a neutral fact, but I included it because I think it can help people make sense of some of Francis' pronouncements. For instance, I think his degree, combined with his having taught a wide-range of subjects, makes him think that he has more expertise than he really does. Other people, however, may use that same fact to form a very different view. But knowing it tells us something about the way Francis thinks.
Second, as followers of Christ we should always seek the truth. If we are going to form opinions about important global leaders like Francis (and many of us will) we should do so based on factual information. It's not enough to say “Pope = Bad.” We need to develop more sophisticated opinions in order to carry out our tasks and roles (such as cultural apologetics).
I could have written a lengthy introduction explaining the differences between Reformed and Catholic beliefs but I don’t think that would have been helpful (or needed by most of our readers). For those who do want to hear about those distinctions I’d recommend some of the articles found here.
Other articles in this series:
Refugees in America • Margaret Sanger • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • C.S. Lewis • Orphans • Halloween and Reformation Day • World Hunger • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 6th Street Baptist Church Bombing • 9/11 Attack Aftermath • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court's Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues