What to make of Pope Francis? Is he endorsing Marxism? Is he changing the Church's teachings? These are questions many traditional-minded Catholics have been asking themselves in recent months.
There is no mistaking the Holy Father's incredible popularity, even among an audience that is usually more antagonistic to the hierarchy within the Catholic Church. Time Magazine
named the Pope their 2013 “Man of the Year” and his viral hashtag on Twitter is #bestpopeever! Lapsed Catholics, non-Catholics, and even people of no religious affiliation whatsoever, seem increasingly intrigued by Pope Francis. He has been photographed washing the feet of disabled children and Muslim women, embracing the handicapped and those afflicted with Down-Syndrome. One thing is for certain: the Pope is turning people's heads and, perhaps, opening their hearts.
At the same time, a few of the Pope's off-cuff remarks in recent interviews have ruffled some feathers. Whether it was his call for income-equality or his criticism of luxury automobiles, the Pope's insistence on a Church that is poor and at the service of the poor has some people squirming in their seats. It was a reply to a question regarding priests who struggle with same-sex attraction, however, that made the most headlines and caused many Catholics to throw up their hands in confusion. “When I meet a gay person,” Pope Francis said, “who am I to judge them? They shouldn't be marginalized. The tendency is not the problem... they're our brothers.” This consternation was only aggravated when he later concelebrated Mass and kissed the hands of a homosexual activist priest campaigning for change in the Church's teaching.
What is Pope Francis up to?
Many Catholics around the world were surprised when the newly elected Roman Pontiff chose the name of “Francis” and credited the inspiration not to the Jesuit saint, Francis Xavier, but to the founder of the Franciscans, Francis of Assisi. The name was not all that he adopted. It seems he has also adopted and been heavily influenced by the saint's simple approach to the Gospel and radical model of Evangelization.
Francis of Assisi lived in a time when many of the common people were scandalized by the clergy's greed for wealth and power. In contrast, Francis lived an austere and poor life and insisted that the Gospel be preached simply and without gloss. One of the sayings most commonly attributed to St. Francis is: “Preach always and, when necessary, use words.” The saint certainly embodied this maxim in his approach to Evangelization. He spent time in leper communities, caring for the bodily needs of the sickest and most marginalized members of his society. He rebuilt churches with his own hands, one stone at a time. When many of his fellow countrymen picked up swords and flocked to the call of the Crusades, Francis traversed the battlefield peacefully and spoke to the Muslim Sultan about the love of God and the beauty of the Catholic faith.
It was in his dealings with his Franciscan brothers, however, that his particular genius for Evangelization shone most stunningly. When faced with human weakness and sin, Francis did not utter harsh words of accusation or condemnation. Rather, he sought to win the brother's heart back to God through compassion and mercy. In his Admonitions
, St. Francis instructs his brothers on the proper way to deal with a friar who has sinned: “Let the ministers receive them charitably and kindly and be so familiar with them, that they can speak to them and act as lords with their servants; for so it should be, because the ministers are the servants of all the brothers.” Francis himself embodied his own admonition when, after a long period of bodily fasting, a brother woke from sleep, weeping with pangs of hunger. Francis did not upbraid his laxity or lack of fervor. Instead, he bade the friar take some bread and insisted that all of brothers do likewise, lest the hungry friar feel ashamed of his weakness.
Regarding a priest who had failed to live up to the dignity of his vocation, Francis did not recommend harsh criticism or public rebuke. Rather, he writes in his Testimony
regarding such priests: “I do not wish to consider any sin in them, because I discern the Son of God in them and they are my masters.”
Love Opens the Way for Truth
St. Francis understood well that love changes hearts and love must be revealed in action. Pope Francis seems to have adopted the approach of his namesake. He, too, understands that authentic conversion is brought about through the witness of Gospel love and not through harsh rebukes. The “Poor Church” must be embodied through humble service and hands-on ministering to those who are ill, both physically and spiritually.
Is all this to say that truth should not be uttered? Certainly St. Francis of Assisi was not afraid to speak the truth. When necessary, he spoke frankly about the reality of hell, the seriousness of mortal sin, and the terror of an unrepentant soul when the devil seizes him at the moment of death. That being said, Francis was convinced that it is the witness of God's love and mercy that turns hearts back to Christ. I think the same could be said for Pope Francis.
The title of his first Encyclical was “The Joy of the Gospel,” and not the “The Truth of the Gospel.” Like St. Francis, the Pope understands that hearts must be opened before they can receive the truth. It is the witness of merciful love shown through joyful service that opens hearts to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. This is what St. Francis understood and lived so effectively and this is what Pope Francis hopes to bring to the “Poor Church” of contemporary society.