What has Pope Francis taught us 4 years into his papacy?

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.

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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.

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Michael Barberi
9 months ago

When St. John XXIII became pope, I was in Catholic elementary school. At that time there was much rejoicing that he was a pope for the people, a pope with a compassionate heart who also saw the long-overdue need for the Church to change. Vatican II was his inspiration and we all lost his guiding light because he died too young. Pope Paul VI was a very different pope compared to St. John XXIII and and more like the past popes in the pre-conciliar era. Ever since, the underlying tone and message of Paul VI, St. JP II and Benedict XVI has been one of obedience to the 'Law'.

Much like St. John XXIII, Pope Francis is a pope of the people, and one who espouses virtue, mercy, compassion and the spirit of the law over a rigid interpretation of doctrine. His vision for the Church is for bishops and priests to be pastors and not a judges who only see the letter of the law and sin. Pope Francis sees things differently: the Curia must be reformed, more responsibility and authority should be given to local Bishops in Synodality, less power and dictatorship should come from Rome, and more the focus of bishops and priests should be on the people in circumstances who live in moral dilemma and hardship.

Reading the moral rule book to every Catholic or telling those born with a same-sex orientation, something they did not choose, that they have an intrinsic disorder that leads them into sin makes them feel like the cursed of God. This is made clear to them when we tell them that the only cure for their illness is to practice a lifetime of sexual abstinence. It is no wonder that most Catholics find this unreasonable, unwelcoming and merciless. It drives them away from our Church, not towards it. This issue was not adequately address by Amoris Laetitia, but hopefully, in the near future.

Let's pray for Pope Francis that his vision for our Church changes hearts and minds to the greater glory of God and for unity, not division.

Barry Fitzpatrick
9 months ago

Once again, Helen nails it! Such a comforting piece in our turbulent time. And, oh yes, can we move away from the amenities war of bigger and better organs and the like and move on to giving everyone around us that "look of love that they crave," and then accompany that look with action on their behalf no matter the circumstances? Amen, Helen.

Crystal Watson
9 months ago

This all sounds very positive, but when I think of the Pope, I think of all the negative things he's said about women, including that they will never be Catholic priests. I think about how he's made no real changes to stop clerical sex abuse. I think of his stand against contraception, even in the face of the poverty of places like the Philippines. I think of the negative things he has said about marriage equality and how little he has done for LGBT people in our church.

Kevin Murphy
8 months 1 week ago

Such hagiography, all across the America Jesuit universe. When I think of Francis I see a rather mean spirited man who tends to insult those he perceives as his enemies. If you believe the teachings in the Catechism you are a "Pharisee." If you don't agree with his "reforms" you are part of the " malicious resistance." There are websites listing his many barbs. As for me, I will never accept his teachings on divorce and remarriage. You cannot change Jesus' direct instructions on this subject, no matter how much advocacy America, and Francis' appointments, place into the public realm.

James MacGregor
8 months 1 week ago

I learned something recently about Pope Francis.

"Describing himself as fallible and a sinner, the pope noted his own dark moments when he struggled with faith and said such an experience was only natural and could be useful to the development of a mature faith. “My Lord is Lord of sinners,” the pope said, “also of the righteous, but sinners he loves more. Crisis helps us to grow in faith. Without crisis, we cannot grow because what fills us today, tomorrow no longer satisfies us. Life puts us to the test.”

"He called for prayer and a recommitment to service to others as a means of responding to the declining vitality of the church throughout Europe.

“'The Lord has told us: Pray!'" the pope said. 'That is what is missing: prayer and working with young people who are looking for direction. There is a lack of service to others. Working with young people is difficult, but it is necessary because the young yearn [to serve]. They are the big losers in modern society, in many countries there is no work for them."

http://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/03/08/pope-francis-discusses-…

America, March 08, 2017

J Cosgrove
8 months ago

Russ Roberts who is Jewish has a audio blog on economics. He recently interviewed Robert Whaples, another economist, on the economics and climate ideas of Pope Francis. Whaples is a convert to Catholicism and is sympathetic to a lot of the Pope's ideas but has some criticisms. Listen to it here http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2017/03/robert_whaples.html. Whaples and other economists have published several articles on the Pope in a recent journal called the Independent Review.

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