When I reflect on four years of Pope Francis, my brain conjures an image of a man (in a white cassock, of course) straining to push a giant armoire across a cavernous room. Spoiler alert—the armoire is the church.
He is a bit impatient because he thinks its “new spot” will be vastly more desirable. From time to time he is grumpy and barks a comment or two to the people around him who are failing to help. Sometimes he doesn’t have a great deal of patience with the people who dispute his trajectory, or who want to know how it will actually work in practice when the armoire reaches its new spot.
Another image comes to mind, too. This one is very much a function of the situation in the United States at this moment. Headlines are screaming; battle lines are hardening; and our heads are swimming. We may be “one nation,” but we are most definitely not “indivisible” or “under God.” Forty percent of Americans report that they have recently fought with a close friend or relative over politics. And politics is a zero-sum, scorched-earth proposition, seemingly taking the place of religion for a remarkable number of people.
Against this backdrop, Pope Francis seems like the one untroubled man standing on a raised hill in the middle of a crowd reduced to chaos. He is reminding us what we were gathered to do in the first place. His words are the kind of simple commands that would be taken for naïveté by a slick politician, but that work wonders to focus the minds of genuinely lost souls looking for bedrock. He is reminding us that we were born and are destined to live in radical solidarity with one another, that we are made (to quote Benedict XVI) to give every person around us “that look of love they crave”—that we crave! that now is no time to worry about form over substance, that Jesus is as good as he looks, and it’s time to get back in close touch and to live as if we take him at his word.
The bottom line is good for a Catholic at this time in history in the United States. We are reminded to get back to basics in a way that is desperately needed. Our parish does not need a new half-million dollar organ, but it sure could use more mutual service and a striving by priest and lay people together to bridge the Gospel to our 21st-century lives. We are reminded that the image of the church that captured us as children can still live in our hearts and guide our steps: the pictures on the covers of our religion books featuring people of every age and race and nation, smiling because they are one in Christ Jesus. Francis has this almost childlike conviction. We can too.
At the same time, the pope’s wide, sweeping gestures also contain the seeds of some frustration. Details matter sometimes. They have to be settled in order for things to move. The armoire won’t fit if the chosen space is a few inches too small. The crowd cannot be brought to order if they can’t hear the leader’s words clearly over the noise. To request details is not to deny the grandeur or the necessity of the sweeping gestures. It is not to be mean to people who want to bask in their beauty. It is rather to realize their import in particular situations. So we need to know things like the full meaning of marital indissolubility or how women really will be incorporated more fully into church leadership. We need both: the beauty to draw us forward, and the transparency and guidance to allow us to deal with the particulars we encounter along the way.