(Source: CD/Vatican News)

“In Pope Francis’ teachings, we must recognise the wisdom and courage of having focused on the contextual aspect of the truth. Giving new prominence to the ‘signs of the times’ and the ‘strength of the real’ in the proclamation of the Gospel is allowing the Church to move towards rethinking the ‘magisterial form’”.

These were words of Cardinal Michael Czerny during a lecture organised by the Bishop A. Lanza Higher Institute of Political-Social Training (ISFPS) of the Archdiocese of Reggio Calabria – Bova in Italy.

The cardinal, who is also the under-secretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, presented a brief profile of Pope Francis’ pontificate, highlighting the distinguishing social aspects of his teachings.

The lecture, themed “The Church ‘going out’ of Pope Francis”, is part of a program titled “The world we want: beyond the crisis. Starting over creatively”.

The cardinal gave the lecture virtually via Zoom on Wednesday. 

Gestures and words

Cardinal Czerny based his lecture on two sources: The Vatican Council’s 1965 Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum §2, and the Church’s reception of the pronouncements from its twenty-one councils.

He explained that in Dei Verbum, the Council Fathers stated that God spoke to humankind through “gestures and words”, emphasizing the circularity and intimate connection between God’s words and what He accomplishes.

Applying this to Pope Francis’ pontificate, he said that to understand the Pope’s teaching it is not enough to refer to speeches or documents alone; rather we should also look at the Pope’s “gestures”.

Some of these include Pope Francis’ invitation to all Christians to pray for him on the evening of his election as Pope, and his visit to migrants who came by boat to Lampedusa.

These “signs” and “actions”, said the cardinal, “illuminate the words which he has addressed to Catholics and people of good will during these years”.

The second premise for Cardinal Czerny’s affirmation found its basis in the observation of a certain “theological-pastoral” custom of a “selective” interpretation over the past fifty years of Vatican II. The cardinal added that much work still needs to be done on this front.

In light of this, Czerny explained, some basic choices of Pope Francis’ magisterium and his insistence on certain points of the Council’s teaching can be explained as an attempt to implement what remains unfinished and what has not yet been fully assimilated by the Church.

Some of these include Pope Francis’s calls for a fuller collegiality among bishops, a greater involvement of national Episcopal Conferences, the highlighting of the role of women and an insistence on a preferential option for the poor.

The Church “going out” and Vatican II

Cardinal Czerny went on to illustrate four examples from Pope Francis’ teaching which not only find their roots in the transformation initiated by the Vatican II Council but are also authentic lines of interpretation of the Council itself.

Pastoral ministry

The first example, Czerny noted, is pastoral ministry as an internal moment – not a consecutive one – to doctrinal elaboration.

He explains that contrary to seeing pastoral life as a moment following doctrinal formulation, Pope Francis, adopting the idea of Pope John XXIII, prefers the perspective of the good of souls and the necessity of responding to the needs of the present hour.

In this regard, Pope Francis has often highlighted the need to overcome the separation between theology and pastoral ministry, and faith and life.

For this reason, the Pope, in the first months of his pontificate, encouraged the Church to come out as it is only through “going out and risking” that we have a concrete experience of being called to proclaim.

Church, People of God

The second example, Cardinal Czerny continued, is the Church as “People of God” on the road to salvation.

Pope Francis, the cardinal said, uses this image of “People of God” taken from Lumen gentium to mean that history represents for the Church a further criterion of verification for believing.

The Church, he continued, “must allow herself to be challenged by present facts and by the trials to which she is subjected, continually renewing herself and expressing her commitment to Christ in every age”.

The cardinal added that only a Church that recognises itself as “people”, unique and of God can mature its vocation to universality and become the “Father’s house” and a “Mother with an open heart” for all.

From this, the challenges faced by the world listed in Evangelii gaudium and Fratelli tutti – individualism, growth without integral development, an economy of exclusion, inequality, among others – can be surmounted by charity which is the “essence of Christianity”.

Care of our common home

Safeguarding creation, the cardinal remarked, was already treated during the Vatican II Council when it focused on the environmental question in Gaudium et spes §3 and denounced the modern human for an inconsiderate use of nature to the extent of changing its balance.

This third example, the care of our common home, was brought even more to the fore with Pope Francis’ 2015 Laudato si’ encyclical.

Cardinal Czerny pointed out that Pope Francis gave this issue an unavoidable relevance by raising “a cry of alarm” about the “spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us”.

He added that in this regard, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity – both fundamental concepts of the social doctrine of the Church – should be read as an evangelical interpretation of respect for creation. 

In light of this, Pope Francis calls for a common project and the establishment of a trajectory on the steps to be taken towards the common good.

Besides, his appeals for universal fraternity in Fratelli tutti go beyond the limits imposed by “ideological particularisms and economic interests” and continue what was already outlined in the Laudato si’ encyclical.

Dialogue and collaboration

The fourth example Cardinal Czerny illustrates is “dialogue as a way, collaboration as a method”.

He said that following the guidelines traced in Unitatis redintegratio and Nostra Aetate, Pope Francis gives a new impulse to the ecumenical movement by encouraging dialogue and by recognising in it the opportunity for growth.

In addition, “when it comes to inter-religious and inter-confessional dialogue, it is Pope Francis’ gestures that precede and inform the words”, Cardinal Czerny noted, adding that the Pope has also made many visits, often informal and unplanned, to other religious leaders.

For the Pope, he added, “it is not only a matter of getting to know others better, but of reaping what the Spirit has sown in them as a gift for us too”, he said.

Concluding, Cardinal Czerny said that the teaching of Pope Francis finds it strength in its ability to look to the future and at humanity, constantly drawing attention to the plight of the poor, the migrants, and all who suffer.

The Pope is firmly convinced that “in the evening of life, we will be judged on love”, said Cardinal Czerny. “To recognise Christ in the face of the poor is to wait for the encounter with him face to face”.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.