The National Catholic Review

Like many people, I hear the words of Pope Francis as an invitation to query what new things the Holy Spirit is doing today. There must be a million ways to structure this inquiry, a million lenses. I’m not choosing the most common lens—what Francis might mean for the institutional church—but rather what he might mean for a personal call to holiness. Like many people, I am a middle-class North American spouse and parent, in a country with a troubling amount of fragmentation and want. My tentative answers (and more plentiful questions) may strike a chord.

The first risky business is trying to sum up the sign and the message that is Pope Francis. Painting with a broad brush, I see a call to personal humility, to viewing one’s life as a particular set of gifts to be placed at the service of others. I see a call to envision every single human being as an invitation to understand better who God might be. And I imagine all of this wrapped in a big dose of joy, thanks to the love of a personal God who empowers human beings to give and receive love and joy.

Several particular things about Francis’ papacy drive both my vision of his message and my struggle to “bring it home.” At the risk of being trite (or maybe there’s no risk at all; I’m just another human being naturally responding to universal human gestures)—I am moved by the way Francis integrates body and soul, material and spiritual, eternal and temporal—in other words, his physical and verbal “touching” of human wounds: poverty, imprisonment, family breakdown, disfigurement, homelessness, sickness and death. In the same vein are his choices regarding the use of material things; he uses them to invite people into relationship, to invite them to see past him to God.

Two applications to my middle-class North American life stand out. The first concerns material things. God forgive me, this is pedestrian; but I feel pretty constrained by the many hours it takes to work in order to pay for the basics: food-clothing-shelter for a family in a still-chancey economy, children’s education and some savings for old age.

But I am reminded forcefully, in light of the sign of Pope Francis, that I have to query my choices about time and money and the stuff I buy. Are they an invitation to relationship or a barrier? Do they empower service or prevent it? Do they keep the poor in mind? Pope Francis visually demonstrates the good Samaritan imperative, in his case responding to the “neighbor” who shows up in St. Peter’s Square or in his many inboxes. How can I?

Respecting other people’s needs, I find that I need to stop my spinning world a few times a week and explicitly ask who needs a call. A note? Some money? Am I giving until it hurts at least some? As for buying stuff, I draw many lines while trying still not to turn this kind of decision making into its own materialistic religion. As a practical result, “shelter porn” (home decorating) and all glitzy magazines are out, as are nice cars, pricey furniture, labeled clothes and any house with more space than a family intensely uses for itself and guests needing a place to stay.

This stuff not only eats up too much time and money but signals to onlookers that I might think we are not radically equal, that I might not be open to knowing them. In our second-hand/consignment everything, food that makes family and friends happy to eat, education and clothes (for lots of public speaking and teaching) that say (I hope): I respect the setting and the company, and love, not hate, beauty and fun in the world.

A second application involves putting my body, not just my mind and my money, in service to others. I take Pope Francis to teach that I can’t really understand Christian love—an integrated body/soul love—if my body stays uninvolved. I need to hold the sick, move furniture for the poor, scrub my kids’ bathroom and be an on-site friend to the lonely. I think this is why in the past, I have felt most “myself,” when, right after appearing on television or returning home after a big presentation, I’m scraping fries off my kitchen floor (yes, I have sons) or moving furniture for a Catholic Worker project.

Is this enough? No. Somewhere in my head is the idea that it’s not near enough until I’m living directly among people with less, giving until it hurts a lot more and relying on God to provide tomorrow what my many work hours supply today. God help me, I will.

​Helen Alvaré is a professor of law at George Mason University, where she teaches law and religion and family law. She is also a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Laity.


ANN COLE | 11/8/2014 - 11:26am

Thank you for this reflection. I am amused by the placement of this article. Your reference to "shelter porn" seems well placed with a full page advertisement facing it offering jewelry. What is that? "Personal porn"?

Brian Richard Joseph | 10/25/2014 - 10:42am

Thanks to Helen Alvare for a beautifully down-to-earth and inspiring reflection
on following the example of Pope Francis, here in the concrete "messiness"
[see Matt Malone's OF MANY THINGS this Nov. 3 online issue] of everyday
live with work and family, daily worries and joys. I'd like to write more but
I have to go and clean the toilet now. Blessings on your work and your writing
Helen! from Dr. Brian R. Joseph in Nova Scotia Canada

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