Pope Francis’ papacy has revealed a hardness of heart in many Catholics.
A Reflection for Thursday of the First Week in Ordinary Time
You can find today’s readings here.
“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” (Ps 95:7-8)
Back in 2017 I began working on a documentary about the impact Pope Francis was having on the Catholic Church and the world. We were approaching the 5th anniversary of his election and it seemed he’d done so much in a relatively short period of time that we could find people to speak powerfully about the real-life impact his words and decisions were having on their lives.
One couple featured in the documentary told the story about how they were denied an annulment from a previous marriage for four years before Francis reformed the process, ultimately freeing them to remarry. In another story, the Cardinal Archbishop of Quebec and a leading Islamic leader in the city recounted a deadly attack by a racist and xenophobic young man on a local mosque in 2017, and how the Pope’s response brought them together and helped foster a deep and lasting friendship.
Pope Francis was not the cause of hard-heartedness. Rather, his papacy revealed something that was already there.
Apart from the protagonists in each story, I interviewed a number of commentators and experts who provided context and analysis about Pope Francis. At the end of each interview, I asked the guests, “Where have you seen Francis’ impact in your life and work?” All of the answers were unique and heartfelt. Everyone could point to a word or a gesture by Francis that had brought someone closer to God, opened up a new dialogue or relationship, or had a broader positive social impact. But one answer clearly stood out from the others, and it has stayed with me. This person was doing advocacy work, attempting to expand access to health care. She was engaging church officials, corporate lobbyists and social activists—not an easy group to navigate! After a fascinating and wide-ranging interview, I asked her, “How has Pope Francis impacted you and the people you’re working with?” She took a deep breath and said, “Honestly, I don’t see Francis’ impact here. His pontificate has revealed the hardness of heart in many Catholics.”
She wasn’t referring to those Catholics who are a bit uncomfortable with the shift in style or governance that Francis has brought to the papacy. These were individuals, often professional Catholics and clerics who, in personal conversations and official meetings, couldn’t help but reveal a deeper disdain for Francis. My interview guest could see the effects of fear, cynicism and an inner rigidity towards Francis that left them spiritually closed off.
“Francis’ pontificate has revealed the hardness of heart in many Catholics.” Her comment was precise and has been enormously insightful for my spiritual life. In this case, Pope Francis was not the cause of hard-heartedness. Rather, his papacy revealed something that was already there.
Whatever we think of Pope Francis, we can apply this more broadly and ask ourselves: What is the real cause or source of fear, cynicism, rigidity, anger and restlessness inside of us? If we’re honest, it’s not the person, thing or symbol we so quickly blame. Jesus tells us that the greatest sin is blaspheming against the Holy Spirit (Mt 12:31), who blows where it wishes (Jn 3:8). In today’s first reading from the letter to the Hebrews, it is the Holy Spirit calling us to soften our hearts. God is not under our control. God is always doing new things. Are we spiritually free enough to encounter them? “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”