When you’re the pope, few things matter as much as what you say and, especially, where you say it.
From the pulpit of St. Peter’s Basilica or an outdoor altar erected in St. Peter’s Square, popes can command global media attention. Pope Francis, however, has settled in with a smaller congregation for his homilies that's more in keeping with his low-key style.
Every day at 7 a.m., Francis celebrates Mass in the chapel of the Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican’s hotel-style guesthouse he has chosen to call home instead of the luxurious papal apartments. His brief, colorful homilies are delivered to small groups of Vatican workers, from policemen to doctors and bank employees.
Often quoting anecdotes from his time as a pastor and archbishop in Buenos Aires, Francis has used his morning homilies to offer spiritual reflections in an accessible, down-to-earth style ― a far cry from the lengthy and highly intellectual public homilies of his predecessors.
According to the Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, Francis regularly speaks off the cuff at Santa Marta, without any prepared text.
It is unclear whether these homilies are official papal texts; in fact, they are not published on the Vatican website.
But Vatican Radio and L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semiofficial newspaper, have been reporting on them regularly, publishing extracts of Francis’ texts.
Their recurrent themes ― the risks of gossip and slander among Christians, the virtue of meekness, the threats of the devil ― offer an insight into the pope’s main concerns, framed in simple imagery that a parish priest might use. The impression is reinforced by frequent photos of Francis sitting in prayer in the back seats at the end of the Mass.
The pope’s morning homilies are “fascinating, a kind of mini Magisterium,” according to John Thavis, a former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service and a frequent Vatican commentator. “They seem designed to provide food for thought at a very accessible level.”
In some cases, though, it is possible to find hints on how Francis might handle the bigger challenges he faces as pope.
On April 9, talking about gossiping and criticizing others as “temptations of the evil one who does not want the Spirit to come to us and bring about peace and meekness,” he advised a course of action to deal with a community’s internal problems: “Keep quiet, and if you have something to say, say it to the interested parties, to those who can remedy the situation ... not to the entire neighborhood.”
On April 16, Pope Benedict XVI’s 86th birthday, Francis discussed the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), whose modernizing reforms became a point of contention after his predecessor tried to reconcile with ultra-conservative traditionalists who reject the council’s reforms. Francis criticized “those who wish to turn the clock back” within the church.
As these homilies begin to draw more attention, there is a growing clamor for the Vatican to make them more fully available and explain whether they are part of the pope's official teaching.
“We choose not to believe that the full transcripts are being saved only for for-profit publication,” wrote the conservative blog Rorate Coeli, which has been highly critical of Francis’ papacy.
The morning homilies at Santa Marta started on March 21, just a week after Francis’ election. The first “guests” were the staff of the guesthouse itself, followed by Vatican garbage collectors and gardeners.
Here are some choice nuggets from Pope Francis’ morning homilies:
- March 22: “If our heart is closed, if our heart is made of stone, then the stones will end up in our hands, and we will be ready to throw them at someone.”
- April 2: “Sometimes in our life tears are the glasses to see Jesus.”
- April 5: “In order to solve their problems, many people resort to fortune tellers and tarot cards. But only Jesus saves and we must bear witness to this! He is the only one.”
- April 12: “Triumphalism” is ‘a great temptation’ for Christians. It is a temptation that even the Apostles had. ... Triumphalism is not of the Lord. ... The Lord teaches that in life not everything is magical, that triumphalism is not Christian.”
- April 15: “The age of martyrs is not yet over, even today we can say, in truth, that the Church has more martyrs now than during the first centuries.”
- April 17: When the church doesn't empower the laity it is “not the mother, but the babysitter, that takes care of the baby ― to put the baby to sleep. It is a church dormant.”
- April 19: “The ideologues falsify the gospel. Every ideological interpretation, wherever it comes from ... is a falsification of the gospel. And these ideologues, as we have seen in the history of the church, end up being intellectuals without talent, ethicists without goodness and let us not so much as mention beauty, of which they understand nothing.”