Vatican journalist says mercy defines Pope Francis' papacy

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Little white crosses scattered before a statue of the Holy Family make up a poignant memorial called the Cemetery for Aborted Children in South Korea. Home to about 15 million Christians, South Korea suffers the highest rate of abortion in the world.

During his trip to the country last August, Pope Francis visited the site in part to clear up the media's "misunderstanding of his social agenda," said Vatican journalist and Boston Globe Associate Editor John L. Allen Jr. Some media outlets had accused the pope of downplaying the Catholic Church's stances on abortion and gay marriage in order to gain secular popularity.

According to Allen, the pope's agenda is none other than mercy - a value he hopes will permeate church leadership at every level.

In a spirited talk before the National Association of Catholic Chaplains March 9, Allen described the visit as one of many examples of the pope's belief that "mercy" and "service" should define church leadership, not "power" and "authority." Allen added that the pope is a "mastermind" at reminding us that "we must be conscious of those in most need of God's loving mercy."

Paraphrasing the pope, Allen said, "We should never get so caught up in pastoral planning that we become blind to the people." He also paraphrased Pope Francis in saying "we need pastors who carry the smell of their sheep" because of how close they are to their flock.

The NACC's four-day conference took place at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, offering professional and spiritual workshops in honor of the organization's 50th anniversary year.

The NACC "advocates for the profession of spiritual care and educates, certifies and supports chaplains," as well as clinical pastoral educators and related professionals.

Allen was the conference's final plenary speaker. Other speakers included Joseph J. Driscoll, Ann Garrido and Debra A. Canales.

Allen started off his talk by thanking chaplains for their service - an action he said carries new meaning now that he has experienced the death of his mother.

"Chaplains are like lawyers," he joked. "You don't really appreciate them until you need them."

He told the group that while it's his job as a reporter to chronicle the church, chaplains are the church.

Allen used anecdotes from his Vatican coverage to paint Pope Francis as a "rock star" to build up to his point that while all popes are "remarkably complex," each one defines his leadership with a "signature phrase." This phrase is not only spoken but evidenced by the pope's actions.

Allen, who has covered three popes during his career, defined Pope John Paul's signature phrase as "Do not be afraid," Pope Benedict's as "Reason and faith" and Pope Francis' as "The Lord never tires of forgiving."

Pope Francis' "passion for the sacrament of confession," his dismissal of "throwaway culture" and his "personal gesture of humility and simplicity" represent his vision for a "serious evangelical shift in the Catholic Church." Allen described the three pillars that support that vision as: leadership as service; a deeply missionary conception; and mercy as the core Christian message.

The most important pillar in the pope's eyes is mercy, said Allen.

"The world has seen our judgment," Allen paraphrased Pope Francis. "Now it is time for the world to see our mercy."

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015