Pope Francis continues to set a fresh tone and a new direction for the Roman Catholic Church. In his first major work as pontiff, released by the Vatican Tuesday, Francis called for new attention to the poor and global inequality, and he offered a vision for bringing the clergy more directly into the lives of the people. For an institution that measures history in centuries, the new pope has moved quickly in words and deeds to open a new chapter for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
The 84-page document, known as an apostolic exhortation, is the first outline Francis has authored for his papacy. In plain language, he criticized the excesses of the global financial system, called on world leaders to fight poverty and pledged to decentralize the church. He called for the sharing of wealth and universal access to jobs, education and health care. The pope put the Vatican hierarchy on notice that it would lead by example. The church, he said, must heed a "conversion of the papacy" and redirect itself toward pastoral care.
Francis' letter, warm and folksy at times, builds on the themes the 76-year-old pontiff has brought to the stage since becoming pope in March. In framing a vision for the church, Francis shifted away from hot-button issues — a focus of his predecessor, Pope Benedict — and called for a new sense of social mission. He implored the clergy to sharpen their homilies and reach out more to parishioners. He called for closer relationships between religious faiths and vowed to open up the Vatican's decisionmaking. "I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty," he said, "because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined."
Francis gave liberals no real ground, affirming the church's position against abortion and the ordination of women — "not a question open to discussion," he wrote. But the first pope from Latin America understands that the church is both a spiritual and a political institution. His call for social justice plays well in Latin America, home to 40 percent of the world's Catholics. His focus on pastoral obligations is vital to restoring the church's standing in America in the aftermath of the child sex abuse scandal. And Francis' call for tolerance of other faiths and gays and for a broader role for women in the church resonates among many lapsed Catholics and the secular world.
Francis is clearly determined to leave a legacy. His humility, humor and charisma have inspired the clergy and everyday Catholics alike. His plans to involve the bishops and energize the parishes will make for a stronger, more relevant church. This promises to be an exciting, historic papacy whose impact reaches far beyond the Catholic faithful.