The difference between Francis and John Paul II

For the young people who will be meeting Pope Francis in Krakow this week, it will be their third Pope. The third Pope in the course of eleven years: after John Paul II, who died in 2005 and Benedict XVI, who abdicated in 2013.

The majority, which is understandable, is involved in the current pontificate. But the great majority of adult Poles see Francis through the prism of John Paul II, and this is hardly surprising. Likewise, it is difficult to avoid comparing the two Popes, especially that, as it commonly seems, the differences lie not only their personalities. Here is a subjective overview of the differences between Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis.

Two worlds

John Paul II and Francis were obviously formed by their common faith, but they were brought up in different historic and cultural contexts which had influence on the shape of their pontificates. There is sixteen years of difference in age between them, but what makes them different from each other are different geographical and historic circles. Karol Wojtyła, born in 1920, was shaped by events related to the history of Poland and, more broadly, to the history of Central and Eastern Europe: the experience of German totalitarianism during the Second World War and of communism afterwards, but also the experience of a strong Church from the times of trial, with full sanctuaries, a Church that was the pillar of the fight for human rights, with the right to liberty – but not only religious liberty – predominating.

Jorge Bergoglio, born in 1936, from the second generation of Italian immigrants, was shaped by a socially difficult situation of Argentina and the poverty of the south, which resulted in the development of the theology of liberation with its Marxist vision of solving the problem of poverty, and also the Argentinian civil war (so-called dirty war). Bergoglio, essentially against treating man as part of a social class, considered people (in accordance with the CELAM declaration from 1968) to be a major part of the Church, and turning towards the poor to be parallel to turning towards their separate culture and popular religiosity. As a provincial of the Jesuits, and then Bishop of Buenos Aires, he lived in a Church in which less than 10% of baptized Catholics regularly attended Mass.

Philosopher and priest

John Paul II was a philosopher, a university professor, a poet and an actor. He was a humanist. He also became a priest. Pope Francis, an alumnus of technical secondary school where he studied chemistry, after 13 years of Jesuit formation is most of all a priest. Karol Wojtyła, with all his openness to people, was a contemplative person, as a cleric he wanted to join the Carmelites. He was a mystic. Pope Francis feels best among people, mainly among those that need help.

Vectors of the pontificates

The differences in directions of the two pontificates are perfectly illustrated by key words used by the Popes straight after the Conclave. John Paul II said: “Don’t be afraid. Open wide the doors to Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man’. He alone knows it.” In these words the great vision of man and the vision of God - who through his Son Jesus gives answer to all questions and concerns of man and of the world - are firmly interlinked.

Pope Francis just after his election said to the journalists: “I want a poor Church for the poor.” Whereas in his homily during installation Mass the pontificate said that as Pope he wants to “embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.”

When, putting it in a way that very much simplifies his message, John Paul II saw introducing Jesus’ teaching to every domain of life as a solution to all social and individual problems, Francis concentrates on making the Church, a “field hospital” in a sense, accept the poor - broadly speaking - just as they are.

Gestures and words

Charisma is an undeniable aspect of characters of both John Paul II and Francis, which – being symbolic of their personalities - is expressed through gestures. In general gestures were/are a forte of them both. Francis performs gestures more frequently, which is not only because John Paul II opened up areas earlier inaccessible to popes, but also because he did not have the technology that the current pope has (e.g. Francis’s selfie with pilgrims) and finally because Francis has a more spontaneous personality. There is one more difference. In so far as Francis attracts through his gestures, John Paul II attracted through his gestures and through his words. What was phenomenal was that many participants of Masses attended by thousands of people had the impression that the Pope spoke to them individually, nay, that he looked solely at them.

The guide and the journey companion

One was a guide and the teacher. The other is a journey companion. Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, formerly John Paul II’s master of ceremonies, presently the papal almoner, once said something important: next to John Paul II nobody would get lost. Pope Francis – it seems – sometimes wonders which way is the right one. For example, when ahead of the synods on the family, he stirred a debate within the Church about the possibility of receiving the Eucharist for believers living in non-sacramental union, being alternately on one side of the debate and on the other. Or when he talked about homosexuals: “If a person is gay, seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

The doctrine

John Paul II adhered to the Church doctrine, which he reaffirmed, explained and supplemented, during his long pontificate, for instance when he gave an ex cathedra interpretation on the ordination of women. Pope Francis, by loosening Church discipline, has breached the sphere of the doctrine in the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation “on Love in the Family.” Francis said that admittedly “unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting certain aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.“ By allowing “certain aspects of that teaching” to be interpreted in various ways, specifically the possibility of admitting people living in non-sacramental unions to Holy Communion, he has weaken discipline and breached the doctrine.

The more so that unlike John Paul II, whose manner of speaking was deliberate and thought-out, Francis’s speech tends to be imprecise. This gives rises to different interpretations, abuses, and has often forced the spokesman Fr Lombardi to explain what Pope Francis had in mind. For example, when during an improvised press conference on board of a plane, he said that good Catholics do not have to be rabbits and have many children.


During John Paul II’s pontificate, it was very clear what the Church and Pope’s teaching is on marriage, family, fertility, as well as many other issues dealing with Christian morality, for instance. Today, many Catholics feel that when it comes to the teaching of the Church and Pope’s teaching, the line is blurred if not diverging. Is this the result of Pope Francis’s imprecise remarks, or something else – it is hard to say.

Such questions arise when the Pope says “the great majority of marriages is invalid,” because the spouses were not conscious of making a life-long pledge, or when he says that people living faithfully with each other as concubines are like real marriages. When he speaks about couples, we don’t always know whether he has in mind a union of man and woman or also gay couples. The Pope’s praising of the Italian politician Emma Bonino, known for her work for the poor in Africa, a supporter of euthanasia and an abortionist, stirred consternation among many people.

This confusion is also felt when it comes to such fundamental issues as the Catholic faith. John Paul II organises in Assisi meetings of different religions to pray for peace, making sure not to create the impression that all are equal. Pope Francis during a meeting with the Focolari movement in extemporaneous speech in which he demanded more humanity, said: “The question of what religion I belong to is not important.”

Tasks of the young

Pope Francis comes to Poland for the WYD, so it is worthwhile to note the differences in the expectations that the two popes had of young people. Poles growing up during the time of John Paul II, will always remember at least two things: “You must demand from yourselves, even if others do not demand from you” and: “Everyone experiences his own Westerplatte in his life. A scale of tasks that he must undertake and fulfil. An obligation, a duty that he cannot dodge and cannot desert.”

Young people, who met Francis for the first time in Rio de Janeiro after he had been elected Pope, heard that their task is to go out onto the streets: “I want you to go out onto the streets to make noise. I want you to make yourselves heard in your dioceses. I want the Church to go out onto the streets, I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything comfortable, everything to do with clericalism, everything that might make us closed in on ourselves.”

The Church

A modest way of life and simplicity is the model for both popes. The difference lies in the fact that while John Paul II accepted the great majority of rules the Vatican imposes on popes’ lives, and slowly introduced new ones, for instance vacations outside Castel Gandolfo or secret skiing escapades, Pope Francis has discarded many of them. The most spectacular ones included choosing a very modest car for driving, and first of all, refusing to live in the Apostolic Palace, a centuries’ old tradition. The reason behind this decision was not to live modestly (the House of St. Martha is very modern), but the need for closeness with others.

The strong difference between the two popes is found in public statements on the clergy and the Roman Curia. Pope Francis often criticises priests publicly. In his Christmas speech in 2014 to the employees of the Vatican, he listed “15 illnesses of the Roman Curia” which has echoed loudly in the world. John Paul II never criticised priests publicly. He is criticised for not reforming the Roman Curia, for wrong choices in nominating bishops, and for delaying the fight against paedophilia in the Church. The priority for Pope Francis was and is the reform of the Roman Curia, but after three years its effects are far from the intended ones.

Divine mercy

For both Popes invoking Divine Mercy, the main motto of the WYD, is very important. However, there is a subtle difference in placing the accents in the teaching of the two Popes on this subject. John Paul II, who devoted the encyclical Dives in Misericordia to a theological understanding of Divine Mercy, wrote that mercy is not compassion or pity, but it is a grace that God bestows on everyone who, breaking with sin, with evil, returns to the Father. A person who was shown God’s mercy is called upon to show mercy to other people – to forgive them, as God has forgiven them, and to help them materially and in other form. We can find all these elements in Pope Francis’s texts, but in what he says about the subject, the main emphasis is placed on man’s mercy towards another man, in the sense of addressing their different poverties and accepting them in the Church as if it was a field hospital. There is yet another difference. I will refer to Father Paweł Ptasznik’s comment, who in my book Papież, który uwierzył (The Pope who believed) noted that the motto of the Year of Mercy “Merciful like the Father” shows that it “we being with ourselves and look at our mercy, comparing with Divine Mercy.”

What is striking is that in the multimedia presentation at the start of the Year of Mercy, there appeared at the cupola of St. Peter’s – as an illustration to Francis’s encyclical Laudato si - the whole endangered fauna and flora, but there was no image of the only hope for the whole world – that of Merciful Jesus. 

No doubt there are differences in the pontificates of John Paul II and Francis. But what they have in common is their faith in Jesus Christ and the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

Dr Ewa Czaczkowska is a journalist, book author, adjunct at the UKSW 

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