This generation, born of the New Evangelization, has come to experience a truly exciting time to be Catholic! The past two papacies have been led by servants who are saintly, inspirational leaders full of wisdom and the Spirit of the Lord.
Currently, the head of the Catholic Church has placed his people in the unusual position of being the ‘cool kids’ on the religion block. Suddenly the Church is shown from every angle in a positive light and her wayfarers are returning to her heart of mercy.
Pope John Paul II, who was named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” in 1994, won the hearts of the youth and eventually the world. JPII brought a vigor to the Church through his faithfulness and charisma. He was gentle, fatherly, and tough all at the same time. Blessed John Paul II, who is to be canonized a saint in 2014, was the first Polish Pope and is credited with having had an instrumental part in bringing down communism in Eastern and Central Europe.
He lived out his Marian message in forgiving his attempted assassin and clinging always to Mary’s maternal wisdom. He gifted the Church with his many beautiful writings including The Theology of the Body; clarifying much of what has been diluted in the understanding of the human person, marriage, and family. JPII faithfully upheld Church teachings, however was criticized by Traditionalists for supporting the reform of the Second Vatican Council.
In 2005, esteemed theologian and university professor Pope Benedict XVI became the Servant to the Servants of God. Benedict was a close and trusted confidant of JPII. Benedict’s guidance on faith and morals directed the Church for many years before his election as Pope, finding him serving as both the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith and Dean of the College of Cardinals. Benedict was both admired and criticized for his focus on a return to fundamental Christian values; strongly opposing the relativist and secular embrace of the rejection of moral and objective truth.
This brings us to the 2013 “Person of the Year” according to Time Magazine. Pope Francis, who chose his name in emulation of the humble poverty-embracing St. Francis of Assisi, has only served the Church in the Chair of Peter for nine months. However, in this time he has gotten much recognition from his own people in the Church, those who have fallen away from the faith, as well as those who have opposed much of Catholic Church teaching thus far.
Born in Argentina, Francis is the first Pope from the Americas. He is also the first Jesuit Pope. Francis’ great appeal to all people is undoubtedly his strong emphasis on mercy and compassion as the foremost mission of the people of God.
However, the embrace of Francis by the secular world has made many orthodox and traditionalists in the Church nervous. They fear that Francis will take a weak stance on moral issues and allow Church doctrine to fray, undoing much of what JPII and Benedict had spent years safeguarding.
Some have even taken the tone of love and compassion in the Pope’s words to mean that he will change fundamental teachings on issues of homosexuality, abortion, and women in the priesthood. This is simply untrue. In fact, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires he was forcefully outspoken against homosexual marriage and adoption, stating that a proposed bill giving same-sex couples the opportunity to marry and adopt children would “seriously damage the family.”(1) He has also affirmed Church teaching on abortion and women in the priesthood. As pope, Francis is still holding his orthodox beliefs but has traded in his style of leadership from authoritarian to consultative. His focus is now on the poor and oppressed who need his fatherly care the most.
In examining this mysterious pope in greater depth and with a critical regard to both the embrace and the shunning he has received, I have hearkened one particular quote that I find most revelatory of his mission:
“I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”(2)
Thus Francis is teaching us to first heal the wounded and broken before we are able to educate and enlighten them with God’s Word, richly preserved in the Church’s wisdom. The love of Jesus must first prevail before the desire to discipleship may grow.
When asked who he is, the Pope simply says, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”(3) He was inspired to join the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) because of their missionary spirit, community, and discipline. St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, placed a strong emphasis on the wisdom of discernment in the Lord. This principle has shaped Francis in looking toward laying foundations of effective change in his position as leader of the Church.
The Pope explains this beautifully in his emphasis on the necessity of mercy from the ministers of the Church, primarily in taking responsibility for the person being ministered to. The delicate balance of the confessor, for example, must responsibly fall between rigor and lax in order to be truly merciful. Either extreme would show lack of regard for the soul seeking mercy. The Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”(4)
Francis is a Pope of the people and because of this need for others and for community, Francis chooses to live in a guest room at Santa Marta rather than the papal apartment. He desires to be in the heart of the mission of everyday people and to closely journey with the individuals who make up the Church.
He has spoken of the need for the feminine genius in Church decisions and directs us to the Mother of God, who is more important than the bishops. The Pope clarifies that we “must not confuse the function with the dignity” in regards to women, who offer an essential role and profound theology in the Church.
Why is it then that Pope Francis, who stands behind the orthodox principles of Church teaching has become an admired and inspiring figure to those who continue to disagree with orthodoxy? Time Magazine’s Nancy Gibbs puts it this way, “He has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music.”(5) And it seems that the music has caught on as a fresh new soundtrack of the Gospel Beatitudes.
Francis re-invites all people to a renewed personal encounter with Christ. He speaks of our source of inspiration as Christians in sharing the love and message that we ourselves have received and been transformed by. “For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”(4) This authentic personal fulfillment of evangelization is a continuation of the message that John Paul II and Benedict XVI preached before him, and that Francis now is blessed to give new fervor and melody through his own personhood and Papacy.
The Church is not a political institution, but rather an encounter with heaven on earth. In this encounter we have a great need to feel God’s mercy and to be transformed by it. We need to know that we are infinitely loved and unable to be stripped of the dignity bestowed on us. As children of God and children of the Church, we are students of the Pope, continually learning. We trust in the Holy Spirit to guide the Church and to preserve the Chair of Peter. This is a time of great need to extend mercy and to renew our commitment to serving the least of our brothers. Let us carry out our mission as Church with joy and fervor remembering that “joy adapts and changes, but it always endures.” (5)
Copyright 2014 Kimberly Cook