March 13 marked the second anniversary of the pontificate of Pope Francis. We cannot allow that date to pass without reflecting on the significance of that election.

It is easily an understatement to say Pope Francis has exacted an impact on the universal church. In less than three short years, we have had an abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, not experienced by the church in more than 600 years, and an election by the College of Cardinals of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, as the first

Latin American pope and first Jesuit to occupy the Chair of Peter. Some of my Jesuit friends have said it was about time.
Pope Francis’ election was one of those unique events in Catholic circles where one asks what you were doing when the news was announced that a pope had been elected.

I was working at my computer with the TV on waiting for the name. When the name was announced it was difficult to understand everything except that the new pope took the name Francis.

Could it have been Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston who is a Franciscan? When it was clear it was Cardinal Bergoglio, a Jesuit who had been selected, I first thought he had chosen the name Francis in honor of St. Francis Xavier, the great missionary revered with near equality to the Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola.

The new Pope Francis quickly made it known that it was Francis of Assisi whose name he was taking. Like his namesake, he focused his attention on the economically disenfranchised; it was obvious he immediately endeared himself to the Italians whose love and devotion to St. Francis of Assisi is well known to anyone who has visited Italy.

The one symbolic gesture that established his relationship with the people of the church he now leads was when he emerged on the balcony of St. Peter’s and bowed down in front of the throngs in St. Peter’s square as well as the millions that were watching on the network news agencies worldwide and humbly asked for their blessing.

In that gesture of submission, there was an implied statement that we share a “solidarity” in serving the mission of the church and that he, Pope Francis, was a “servant” leader.

Since that moment on the balcony, the church has been involved in a period of adjustment. There was a wave of acceptance for this pope who seemed to put aside the trappings of the office in order to identify more with the faithful he shepherds.
In fact, Pope Francis used a phrase for those who minister that they should “smell like the sheep”; they must know the people they serve and joyfully accept the identification they possess with them.

He brought a spontaneity to the Petrine Office never before experienced.

In St. John Paul II, we had a “philosopher” who, in more than 25 years, addressed almost every facet of the church. He was a meticulous thinker. His presence reinvigorated the church worldwide.

It was St. John Paul II who named Jorge Mario Bergoglio a bishop and a cardinal. In Pope Benedict XVI, we had a world-class theologian and teacher. In Pope Francis we have a “pastor” who fashions his community with a vision that embraces the ambiguity experienced by many in our culture and who attempts to reconcile the marginalized through an invitation to encounter the Gospel.

Nothing could depict this vision with more clarity than his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium).

In the introduction to the exhortation, he states:

“The Joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.

“Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ, joy is constantly born anew.

“In this exhortation, I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the church’s journey in years to come.”

It seems that Pope Francis is not afraid to explore new paths in his openness to discuss areas which have been on the periphery of the ecclesial community, i.e., homosexuality, divorce, and this openness has excited those within and outside of the Catholic Church.

It is not atypical to hear a person of another faith state they really like Pope Francis. It’s as if he has opened doors that to some have appeared to be closed.

After two years, what is the Pope Francis effect? Certainly his popularity is strong and gives us an opportunity, a “forum” to encourage Catholics and Christians of other faiths to recognize the need for a deeper commitment to the poor and marginalized through the social teachings of the church.

However, as all true leaders know, popularity is fleeting and it wanes when decisions must be made for the good of the church based on our responsibility to the truth.

Pope Francis himself seems to think he has only a short period of time in the Petrine Office. Maybe that’s why there is urgency in setting forth his vision in a church that often moves slowly.

In a recent interview, he said he feels the Lord has placed him here for a short time and nothing more.

On March 13, his second anniversary, he announced this coming year would be dedicated to a Year of Mercy. Whatever time the Lord has ordained for Pope Francis, perhaps he will help us to be a more merciful church. “Ad multos annos gloriosque annos vivas, vivas, vivas.” (May you live many and glorious years)