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Did Pope Francis Really Say Jesus Was a Failure?

Jimmy Akin

In his recent homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Pope Francis made a comment that some have leapt on as yet another outrage.

Allegedly, Pope Francis said that Jesus was a failure.

I’d provide links, but I don’t want to give the outrage mongers the traffic.

I have, however, received several queries from people saying they are troubled and wonder what to make of the remark.

So for those concerned by the situation, let’s take a look at it.

1) What did Pope Francis actually say?

In his Sept. 24 vespers homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, addressing a group of priests and religious, Pope Francis said:

We can get caught up measuring the value of our apostolic works by the standards of efficiency, good management, and outward success which govern the business world.

Not that these things are unimportant!

We have been entrusted with a great responsibility, and God’s people rightly expect accountability from us.

But the true worth of our apostolate is measured by the value it has in God’s eyes.

To see and evaluate things from God’s perspective calls for constant conversion in the first days and years of our vocation and, need I say, it calls for great humility.

The cross shows us a different way of measuring success.

Ours is to plant the seeds: God sees to the fruits of our labors.

And if at times our efforts and works seem to fail and produce no fruit, we need to remember that we are followers of Jesus . . . and his life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, in the failure of the cross.

2) People are really upset about that?


3) Really?

Yes. Next question.

4) Why would they be upset about it?

I’m not going to go into the psychology of the outrage mongers, beyond noting that they appear to have an anti-Francis animus that distorts their ability to read straightforward texts.

However, they are objecting to the statement that Jesus’ “life . . . ended in failure, in the failure of the cross.”

5) But wait! Didn’t you just omit an important qualifier in what the pope said?

Yes. The ellipsis (i.e., the “ . . . ”) in the above statement replaces the all-important qualifier “humanly speaking.”

It’s only by omitting or ignoring or misunderstanding this qualifier that one could take offense at the pope’s remark.

This qualifier tells the listener (or reader) that the statement is only an apparent, not an actual, description of affairs.

Pope Francis means that from a superficial, human point of view, Jesus’ death might look like he was a failure, but, from God’s perspective, this was not so.

6) How would that human assessment work?

In Jesus’ day, people expected the Messiah to lead a triumphant rebellion against the Romans, restore political independence to Israel, and reign in Jerusalem as a Davidic king.

Jesus didn’t do any of those things.

Instead, the Romans killed him, and they did so in a particularly painful and humiliating way. His followers were scattered and took to meeting in secret after his crucifixion.

From the perspective of most people of the day, based on their expectations of what the Messiah would do, he looked like a failed political revolutionary.

7) How does that contrast with the true perspective on Jesus?

From God’s perspective, Jesus did exactly what he was supposed to.

He was never meant to lead a political rebellion against the Romans. He expressly told the Roman governor, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

Instead, he fulfilled God’s plan precisely by dying on the cross.

And, while his followers may have been in disarray and fear for a time, they eventually led a massive movement that converted the Roman Empire to the Christian Faith.

Even in the first generation of that process, the early Christians could be described as having “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

While, from a human perspective, Jesus and his movement looked like failures at the moment he was killed, from God’s perspective, Jesus was a success, and in time this would be revealed by the fruit his movement bore.

8) How do we know this is what Pope Francis has in mind?

Well, the phrase “humanly speaking” tells the reader that the pope is setting up precisely this kind of contrast between the human and the divine perspective.

So does the surrounding text. Look at the beginning of the quotation above: The pope is telling priests and religious that they should not judge the success of their efforts by purely worldly standards. That kind of evaluation has a role, but it is not the definitive standard. Instead, God’s perspective is.

Thus he stressed:

But the true worth of our apostolate is measured by the value it has in God’s eyes. . . .

The cross shows us a different way of measuring success.

Ours is to plant the seeds: God sees to the fruits of our labors.

The pope’s point is that, judged by worldly standards, our efforts might seem to end in failure, when in reality—from God’s perspective—they are actually succeeding!

Thus he reminds us that

if at times our efforts and works seem to fail and produce no fruit, we need to remember that we are followers of Jesus

It is at this point that he introduces the merely apparent failure of Jesus’ efforts in human terms and how the apparent “failure of the Cross” was actually a brilliant success that bore fruit according to God’s timetable rather than man’s.

9) Isn’t this contrast between the human and the divine perspective on Jesus’ ministry reflected in the New Testament?

Yes. Multiple times. One example is 1 Corinthians 1, where St. Paul writes:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor. 1:18, 22-25).

The fact that Jesus’ death on the cross was scandalous and a mark of failure to people in Paul’s own day (“folly . . . a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Greeks”) is being contrasted with the true perspective, according to which it is “the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

It is precisely this contrast in perspective that Pope Francis is referring to.

10) Couldn’t Francis have been clearer?

One can always say that someone could have been clearer (even when this isn’t true).

But we, as listeners and readers, have an obligation to devote reasonable efforts to understanding what is being said in the things we hear and read.

Pope Francis is not obliged to speak at all times in public as if he were addressing small children.

When he’s addressing adults, he can reasonably expect them to know what is meant by phrases like “humanly speaking” and to be able to recognize the use of ironic references like “the failure of the cross.”

St. Paul expects the same thing of his readers when he uses phrases like “the foolishness of God.” (Just imagine how the outrage mongers would get the vapors if Pope Francis had uttered that phrase!)

Popes—and this certainly includes Pope Francis—are not always clear, but this is not one of those times. What Pope Francis said is perfectly clear for anyone who reads it attentively and with good will.

In the foreword to his Jesus of Nazareth series, Pope Benedict XVI made a simple request:

I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.

That is precisely what the outrage mongers are not showing to Pope Francis in this case.


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