There's been ample consideration of how Pope Francis completes a triumvirate with his two immediate predecessors, and it's easy to compare Francis to the jovial, Council-calling, tradition-shirking John XXIII. But in numerous other ways, there's a direct line of influence from Pope Paul to his latest successor, who was ordained a priest during Paul's pontificate and largely formed by it:
- "A poor Church for the poor." In his first audience as pope, Francis explained his choice of name as inspired by Francis of Assisi — the man of poverty, the man of peace, the friend of creation. He has gone on to condemn on numerous occasions a "throwaway culture" linking everything from poverty to genocide to a willingness to cast people aside as disposable. Pope Paul's 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio greatly laid the foundation for this thinking, as did his 1972 World Day of Peace message, "If you want peace, work for justice."
- Atheists in Heaven. Pope Francis got headlines (and a Vatican clarification) in May 2013, when he asserted in a homily that God's saving grace was also available to atheists. Maybe surprising, salvation for unbelievers was hinted at in Paul VI's first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam (1964), in which he ponders (#104) whether atheists have truly rejected God or have rejected a poor representation of God made by Christians.
- Birth control and mercy. In March, Pope Francis addressed Humanae Vitae, Paul VI's 1968 encyclical on marriage by characteristically saying the encyclical should be applied "with much mercy, attention to concrete situations." Anyone who thinks this is a new approach to Humanae Vitae, however, hasn't gotten to #29 of the letter, in which Pope Paul encourages priests to bring the mercy of Christ to the couples they serve. He says priests should draw confidence from the fact that the Holy Spirit is also working in the hearts of these couples.
- Mission Church. If Pope Francis' vision of Church could be boiled down to one phrase, it would be: a mission of mercy to the margins. It's not enough for the Church to simply welcome people. It must go out. Pope Paul addressed this in what could now be called his prequel to Francis' Evangelii Gaudium, the 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi. (Pope Francis calls it the greatest pastoral document ever written.) Pope Paul summarized the outward focus on the Church in one sentence: "She exists in order to evangelize."
- The Patriarch. When Francis met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in the Holy Land in May, he was explicitly echoing the historic meeting of Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964. Francis, however, had already met Bartholomew; the patriarch was even present at Francis' inauguration Mass. And Patriarch Bartholomew came to the Vatican, June 8, to participate in the interfaith prayer service for peace with the presidents of Israel and Palestine. With Francis and Bartholomew expected to meet in Turkey later this year, it looks like Francis is parlaying Paul's example and turning the Sees of Peter and Andrew into one dynamic duo.
- Bishops working together. Pope Francis made it clear at the opening of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family in Rome this month that he wanted the bishops to speak their minds honestly and listen humbly, that in making their discussion frank they would serve the needs of the Church. He got his wish, and now the Church will engage in a year of discussion leading into yet another Synod on the family in October 2015. Paul VI instituted the Synod of Bishops as a way of continuing the collaboration of the world's bishops on the heels of the Second Vatican Council.
- Servant Leadership. When Paul VI discarded the triple papal tiara, he sent a message that the pope was not a king, but a bishop, a pastor, a servant. In his first days as pope, Francis turned heads by appearing on the balcony of St. Peter's sans traditional red cape and deliberately referring to himself as bishop of Rome. He also could have been channeling Paul when his inauguration homily (and one of his first tweets) asserted that "True power is service."
CNS Photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo