One of the essential keys to Pope Francis’ theology is summarized in the Spanish phrase, santo pueblo fiel de Dios. It is somewhat of a mystical expression, meaning “God’s Holy People, Faithful to God.” Reflecting the New Testament Scriptures and the Second Vatican Council’s “People of God” concept, the phrase is usually translated, “God’s holy faithful people.”
According to one Papal biographer, the “People of God” theology occurred to Pope Francis while he was studying the classical reference work of Church doctrine known (from its editors’ names) as Denzinger-Schönmetzer. At the time he concluded that “the People of God” was not only an institution but also “a repository of faith.” In Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s own words, expressed some time later: “When you want to know what the Church teaches, you go to the Magisterium… but when you want to know how the Church teaches, you go to the faithful people… The Magisterium will teach you who is Mary, but the faithful people will teach you how to love Mary.” (Meditaciones para Religiosos, 1978; cited by A. Ivereigh, The Great Reformer, 2014)
These are profound ideas, of course. But they help us all understand the complexity of spirit’s permeating the mind and heart of a truly great Churchman, a versatile giant reminiscent of Saint Pope John XXIII and Saint Pope John Paul II. Again the Church and the world have been gifted with transcendent insight by virtue of which it should be possible for mere human beings to realize that man is not only a mystery, but is in truth the mystery – a favorite theme of Karol Wojtyla. In a now famous lecture which Cardinal Bergoglio gave at the Universidad del Salvador, he quoted from the close of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “Whoever does not believe in God will not believe in the people of God. Only the people and their future spiritual prayer will convert our atheists, who have severed themselves from their own land.”
“God’s Holy People, Faithful to God…” Within this prayerful phrase can we not detect the reason as to why Pope Francis, while addressing the huge crowds of spectators in St. Peter’s Square for the first time as Roman Pontiff, humbly asked for their blessing before he imparted his own benediction urbi et orbi?
And can we not also sense the same Papal reverence for God’s Holy People within the crowds that have surrounded him everywhere he pilgrimages – from Latin America (remember Copacabana, a praia da fé [the beach of faith]) to our present expectations for Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and New York City?
“God’s Holy People,” incidentally, is so characteristic of Pope Francis that the Archbishop of Canterbury described him in terms of “an extraordinary humanity, on fire with Christ.” (Ibid.) It was as if our Argentine Pope were actually there, in spirit, when the Lord reversed worldly values in the greatest sermon ever preached. It was as if he actually heard the Savior’s words to those with mounting fears, and calloused hands, and children tugging on their fears, that they (in the American poet’s words) are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
And as for our Holy Father’s teaching us how to love our Blessed Lady, we need but recall his first visit to Christianity’s premier church in her honor, St. Mary Major in Rome. There he was, Pope Francis, bearing a small floral arrangement, which he carefully placed before the image of Mary, Salus Populi Romani.