Pope Francis and the Facets of the Catholic Church
“Every saint is a little looking-glass of God: a facet of the jewel which constitutes the Catholic Church.”
– Monsignor Francis Bickerstaffe-Drew
It may go without saying, but something special is happening in the Catholic Church. Last Wednesday, March 13, 2013, fumata blanca (white smoke) snaked from the Sistine Chapel chimney. Before long, to the faithful masses in St. Peter’s Square, the Cardinal Proto-Deacon pronounced the famous phrase, “Habemus papam!”. And out poured roars of celebration. Indeed, “Habemus papam.”… “We have a Pope.”
And so, emerging from behind the announcing Cardinal and the ushering Cross, was Pope Francis. He was adorned in white Papal vestments with a large crucifix around his neck. His glasses were large. His smile reserved. He looked smaller than the youthfully charismatic John Paul II and the intellectually imposing Benedict XVI. To most untrained viewers (including myself) who had followed the Conclave process closely, it was clear that we had no idea who this man was. We had heard names like Cardinal Scola, Ouellet, Turkson, and O’Malley in the weeks preceding Conclave. But Bergoglio from Argentina?
And yet, from the first moment of this mild-mannered man’s papacy, it was apparent that something special was happening. By now, most of us have heard the numerous anecdotes that have warmly illustrated who Pope Francis is and will continue to be. On the rainy evening of his election, he would prioritize greeting the rain-soaked faithful in St. Peter’s Square over greeting the individual Cardinal electors who gave him the job. No offense was obviously intended, nor taken. Rather, it was a gesture of a shepherd anxious to attend to his faithful flock. His selection of the name Francis in honor of the famous kindly, devoted, and spare St. Francis of Assisi was an act demonstrating his devotion to the poor, but also to a degree of ecumenism. After all, he is a Jesuit who adopted a Franciscan name. And, of course, there was the unprecedented first request that a prayer be raised for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI followed by a requested prayer by the masses on behalf of the new Pope. These two gestures illustrated a deep respect for a wise and humble predecessor, and a profound reliance on God’s wisdom and mercy augmented by the prayers of His people. Both acts were wonderful expressions of humility.
In the days that followed, further insight emerged regarding Pope Francis’ past character while real-time footage demonstrated his character of the future. As priest and ultimate Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis (as Jorge Mario Bergoglio) was a man of the people. Forswearing the trappings of the “princes of the church”, Bergoglio lived in a spartan apartment, cooking his own meals, and commuting to work on a city bus. He encouraged priests to reach out into the streets for the spiritually hungry, to connect with those who are in greatest need of God’s mercy, and to never forsake an opportunity to save, serve, and support. God’s work is in the trenches. And Bergoglio was in the trenches doing it.
From the first blessing he gave as Pope, one encountered a calm, endearing style – a soothing presence that seemed to say easily and without pretense, “I understand. I have been there. And I am here to help.”. And then, there were his words. The most striking quality I found in Pope Francis was his paradoxical ability to speak a rich message of simplicity. His ability to speak clearly and poignantly to the everyday struggles of the average person – namely, me – was uncanny. This is well-demonstrated by several excerpts from previous homilies and messages:
“The trap of powerlessness makes us wonder: Does it make sense to try to change all this? Can we do anything against this? Is it worthwhile to try, if the world continues its carnival merriment, disguising all [this tragedy] for a little while?…
Lent is presented us as a shout of truth and certain hope that comes us to say “Yes, it is possible to not slap on makeup, and not draw plastic smiles as if nothing happened.” Yes, it is possible that all is made new and different because God remains ‘rich in kindness and mercy, always willing to forgive’ and He encourages us to begin anew time and again. Today, again, we are invited to undertake a Paschal road toward Life, a path that includes the cross and resignation; a path that will be uncomfortable but not fruitless. We are invited to admit that something inside us is not going well, (in society or in the Church) to change, to turn around, to be converted.”
“Jonah had everything clear. He had clear ideas about God, very clear ideas about good and evil. On what God does and on what He wants, on who was faithful to the Covenant and who instead was outside the Covenant. He had the recipe for being a good prophet. God broke into his life like a torrent. He sent him to Nineveh. Nineveh was the symbol of all the separated, the lost, of all the peripheries of humanity. Of all those who are outside, forlorn. Jonah saw that the task set on him was only to tell all those people that the arms of God were still open, that the patience of God was there and waiting, to heal them with His forgiveness and nourish them with His tenderness. Only for that had God sent him. He sent him to Nineveh, but he instead ran off in the opposite direction…
What he was fleeing was not so much Nineveh as the boundless love of God for those people. It was that that didn’t come into his plans. God had come once… “and I’ll see to the rest”: that’s what Jonah told himself. He wanted to do things his way, he wanted to steer it all. His stubbornness shut him in his own structures of evaluation, in his pre-ordained methods, in his righteous opinions. He had fenced his soul off with the barbed wire of those certainties that instead of giving freedom with God and opening horizons of greater service to others had finished by deafening his heart. How the isolated conscience hardens the heart! Jonah no longer knew that God leads His people with the heart of a Father.”
“The experience of faith puts us in the experience of the Spirit, which is characterized by the ability to get moving. Nothing is more opposed to the spirit than settling in, shutting oneself in. When we do not walk through the door of faith, the door closes, the Church closes up, the heart is retracted, and fear and the evil spirit embitter the Good News. When the chrism of faith goes dry and rancid, the evangelist can no longer spread it because it has lost its fragrance. Then it often becomes cause of scandal and distance for many.”
“It is not enough for our truth to be orthodox and for our pastoral action to be effective. Without the joy of beauty, truth becomes cold and even ruthless and proud, as we see happening in the discourse of many bitter fundamentalists. It seems that they chew on ashes instead of savoring the sweetness of the glory of Christ’s truth, which illuminates all reality with gentle light, taking it just as it is every day. Without the joy of beauty, work for the good becomes a gloomy focus on efficiency, as we see happening in the work of many overwhelmed activists. It seems that they clothe reality in statistical mourning rather than anointing it with the interior oil of joy that transforms hearts, one by one, from the inside.”
“If I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out onto the streets and a sick withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first one.”
And at his first Angelus on March 17 as Pope Francis, he would continue:
“Well, brothers and sisters, the face of God is that of a merciful father, who always has patience. Have you thought about God’s patience, the patience that he has for each of us? That is his mercy. He always has patience, patience with us, he understands us, he waits for us, he does not weary of forgiving us if we know how to return to him with a contrite heart.”
“Let us not forget this: God never wearies of forgiving us, never! So, father, whats the problem? Well, the problem is that we grow weary, we do not want to, we tire of asking for forgiveness. He never tires of forgiving, but we, at times, we tire of asking forgiveness. Let us never tire, let us never tire! He is the loving Father, who always forgives, who has that heart of mercy for all of us. And we too learn to be merciful with everyone.”
This was our new Pope. The Vicar of Christ. I have to admit, I had my momentary misgivings when I saw Pope Francis. On the heels of the world traveler, charismatic Pope John Paul II and the brilliant, insightful Pope Benedict XVI, I felt there was little chance that the College of Cardinals could select another extraordinary Heir to St. Peter. But I seem to have forgotten the role of the Holy Spirit in these proceedings. What originally, in my eyes, was a small, shy, bespectacled Pope in the shadow of giants, turned out to be anything but that… This Pope was proving to be humble, yet confident. Simple, yet profound. Innocent, yet wise. Principled, yet seasoned in practice. Perhaps after an essential John Paul II and an essential Benedict XVI, it is now time for a Pope Francis…Yes. And thus far, Pope Francis is proving to be yet another of the beautiful facets of the jewel that is the Catholic Church – where each facet is unique, rich, and indispensable. Indeed, something special is happening in the Catholic Church – a mighty special something. Habemus papam.