NEW YORK (CNS) — The church is transforming itself with Pope Francis leading the way by placing new emphasis on familiar tenets of the faith, according to one of his “classmates” from the February 2001 consistory of the College of Cardinals.

“This Holy Father has been and will be faithful to the doctrine and teaching of the church,” said Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington. “He says it clearly and I guess there are some people who don’t like clarity. … He’s not an obfuscator. He tells it like it is, because he wants people to hear it as it truly is.”

Cardinal McCarrick reflected on the first two years of this papacy March 19 at the American Bible Society headquarters in New York.


“The phrase, ‘What you see is what you get’ is so true,” he said. Yet, “it is so difficult to describe him. He’s very simple, yet tremendously complex, a man of great depth and great ability, and enormous personal goodness,” the cardinal said.

Cardinal McCarrick said there is “a certain sense of self-definition” in the pope’s words in the apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel”: “My mission of being in the heart of the people is not just a part of my life or a badge I can take off; it is not an ‘extra’ or just another moment in life. Instead, it is something I cannot uproot from my being without destroying my very self. I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world.”

Pope Francis’ focus on the chasm between the rich and the poor reflects his own deep concerns, as well as an often-repeated theme of the general congregation that directly preceded the pope’s election in 2013, Cardinal McCarrick said.

The cardinal recalled meeting then-Cardinal Jorge Bergolio at the airport in Buenos Aires.

“He picked me up in a rickety borrowed red Ford, driven by its owner. As we rode to our destination, he didn’t point out tourist sites, but places that troubled him,” he said, including a settlement of impoverished people under a bridge and an adult prison that housed young offenders. Cardinal Bergolio told him that he visited both locations, but knew he should do so more often.

“The only things I saw were his concerns. I really would have been less troubled if he had just shown me the sites,” Cardinal McCarrick said, because it made him think how attractions he shows his own visitors might reflect his priorities.

Cardinal McCarrick said Pope Francis has brought new attention to the dignity of the human person, the mercy of God and the role of the family. “He looks out for all human persons, not just Catholic” and sees a call to greater unity,” the cardinal said.

Pope Francis understands both the sinfulness of people and God’s boundless mercy, Cardinal McCarrick said. In his homily at one of the first Masses of his papacy, Pope Francis said God never gets tired of forgiving us, but we sometimes get tired of asking him, Cardinal McCarrick said.

“I think he’s a saint. He thinks he’s a sinner,” he said.

The cardinal predicted Pope Francis will address the issue of broken marriages by coaxing canon lawyers “to develop better systems so we understand how the mercy of God can reach into circumstances that we don’t always understand,” he said. “I believe that so many marriages that were rightly and correctly celebrated are not valid, because people really don’t understand that this is forever, with this one person, and in the hope of bringing children into the world.”

Cardinal McCarrick said Pope Francis has a great and quick sense of humor, which he uses to good effect. He described several instances of being on the receiving end of gentle barbs from the pope. “I didn’t think they were infallible statements,” he laughed.

In opening remarks, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican representative to the United Nations, said the pope is revitalizing the church with an emphasis on joyful preaching. The Holy Father’s homilies at his Casa Santa Marta residence “have become a treasure trove of profound and practical reflections on the word of God found in the liturgical readings” and reading them over a cup of coffee is an excellent way to start the day, the archbishop said.

Archbishop Auza said Pope Francis has given specific guidelines for the preacher and the homily. If followed by bishops, priests and deacons, “there would be no more excuse for endless, winding, rumbling and — should I say — boring homilies!” he said.

He said mercy and charity are two of the principal themes of the pope’s preaching in the last two years.