When Pope Francis was elected, everybody (well, almost everybody) loved him. He is this warm, fuzzy, smiling teddy bear of a man. He lives the Gospel. He moves outside the box. We were impressed. We liked the idea of our leader leading with a big heart. Even the media seemed to embrace him.
Well, the tide is beginning to turn. As his living out of the Gospel starts to impact us personally, we tend to become more and more critical. When his words and actions convict us, we think maybe he’s too radical, too progressive, or too outright liberal. After all, he is a Jesuit.
What is he asking of us today? To be more merciful to divorcees? To withhold condemnation of homosexuals? And, most shocking of all, not to be small-minded?
Pope Francis hasn’t introduced any new doctrine or theological principles for us to live by. He’s modeling for us what Jesus himself revealed to the Apostles as the way of life for anyone wanting to be a disciple. It is what the church has proposed forever. It is the narrow way that covers a broad expanse. It is difficult and challenging when put into practice.
I think the words and actions of Pope Francis are simply highlighting the fact that maybe for a few years now, we have forgotten what living the Gospel looks like. Probably more than a few of us could be convicted of living a life of contentment, a life we would be more than happy to continue, were it not for him stirring us up!
The progression towards a more pastoral approach to ministry, while admittedly moving more like a babbling brook than a rapid current, has actually been in motion for awhile now. I believe our priests today are probably among the first people in the Church to emphasize this pastorally minded response to the needs of God’s people. It rises naturally out of their lived ministry. They want to be an instrument of reconciliation. I think Pope Francis is simply shining a light on what they have already known, embraced, and attempted to live for some time now.
Slowly, people who felt shamed out of the church for one reason or another come back to us. Admittedly, people do walk away by choice, and for a variety of reasons, but sometimes it is out of sheer frustration, anger, or misunderstanding. So what do they find when they return?
Do we throw open the doors and say “Welcome home!”, or do we start giving them a complicated action list to set things straight?
When I first started in catechesis many years ago, I was briefly exposed to Catholic Answers and the foolish notion that the lives of people can be regulated by black-and-white textbook answers. It didn’t take long for me to realize that a minister’s ability to respond to the needs of people requires a compassionate, yet faithful, approach.
And who has shown me this over the years? Our priests. I have had the good fortune to know some very good men who have tried very hard to respond to the messiness of life, in loving, charitable ways, within a Church that is neatly ordered.
Naturally, my own progression is largely due to their response to some of my ridiculously, “small-minded” questions, some of which are still being asked by others today. For instance, we still want to argue about who can get their feet washed on Holy Thursday and ignorantly ask whether a four o’clock wedding Mass “counts” for Sunday.
The struggle of Pope Francis to live out the Gospel in the spirit of Christ is a thing of beauty. Obviously, since Francis is 100% human, he is going to say or do things on occasion which reflect his imperfections, but that does not diminish his holiness as the Vicar of Christ on earth.
It is, however, the work of the entire Church to give expression to the reality that the Good News is for everyone. This is the essential message of the New Evangelization that comes from the Gospel. I do not believe it is a coincidence that Pope Francis has been elected to lead us at this time, as things are heating up.
It is often said that if God wants the Church to move, he can make it happen. It seems obvious to me that we are witnessing a strong movement of the Holy Spirit, as God calls his Church to be even more closely formed to his image, rather than a shadow of an illusion. Francis is sharpening the image for us and we should be paying close attention.
Of course, this requires us to be open to living the Gospel as we are called to do, which surely involves our personal commitment to change. I would suggest that instead of spending a lot of energy opposing the words and actions of Pope Francis, we might be wise to embrace them, because there is the high likelihood that he, being moved by the Spirit, is leading the way to a new Pentecost.
Copyright 2013 Janet Cassidy