The Francis Factor

On Oct. 1, a standing room only crowd of 750 filled Gaston Hall at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., for the inaugural dialogue of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. What brought them? Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington and the university’s president, John J. DeGioia, and an impressive panel certainly offered insights. But that was not what filled the hall. It was the Francis factor. They came to hear about Pope Francis and how he is affecting public life…and our lives.

As director of the initiative, my expectations were modest. Panels about popes are rarely standing room only affairs. This was different. As Mark Shields observed, for someone who avoided news conferences and interviews, the pope is really good at them. Mr. Shields asked when any leader had said something in an airplane or magazine that led to so much thoughtful reflection? David Brooks pointed out that the pope is a countercultural leader using the culture and media to reach people directly. Kim Daniels cited the authenticity of a humble pastor who sounds like Jesus. Alexia Kelley reported on young people drawn to a message of joy and mercy and an “infallible” leader who talks about past failures.

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There were warnings against reducing Francis’ challenging call to an ethic of universal reassurance and against diminishing John Paul II and Benedict XVI, whose teaching Francis carries into action. There is still much work to be done to heal a church deeply wounded by the scandal of sexual abuse by members of the clergy and still searching for ways to fully involve women. Another caution had come from the pope himself earlier, on May 18, when he said: “All of you in the square shouted out ‘Francis, Francis, Pope Francis,’ but where was Jesus? ...From now on enough of Francis; just Jesus!” Still, in six months the perception of the church has moved from a besieged institution so mired in scandal that a pope resigned to a vibrant community with a leader who captures the world’s attention. 

Who would have thought that Washington would be the place of paralysis and the church the place of “hope and change”? As Washington ground to a halt, stuck in old battles, Francis is charting a new course with eight cardinals returning to the core of the Gospel: mercy, the cross and the call to live our faith everyday with joy. Francis challenges all of us without the self-righteousness of a culture warrior or the disdain of the elite secularists. When he tells a frightened single mother he would be honored to baptize her child, this advances the pro-life cause more than a million letters. When he asks, “Who weeps?” for lost immigrant workers, he confronts the fear of the stranger that undermines immigration reform. He challenges the false moralizing of the extremes and says that abortion is part of our “throwaway culture” and nothing to be celebrated.

I now await a column by Maureen Dowd urging liberals to stop “obsessing” about same-sex marriage and abortion and start focusing on overcoming poverty. Those left behind by the market are human beings, not collateral damage. When conservatives cut $40 billion from food stamps and nothing from subsidies for agribusiness, they are not friends of Francis. Who left Planned Parenthood in charge of Democrats and the Tea Party in charge of Republicans?

In another recent interview, Pope Francis said: “We must restore hope to the young, aid the old, open ourselves to the future, spread love. [We must be] the poor among the poor. We must include the excluded and preach peace.” On politics, he said, “I believe that Catholics tasked with political life must keep the values of their religion before them, but with a mature conscience and competence to realize them.”

Francis focuses on the poor and peace, the young and the old and challenges lay men and women to use our consciences and competence to advance the common good. In the end, the Francis factor is not just about Francis, but about our responsibility to be “salt, light and leaven” in public life.

Francis wants a church “of the poor and for the poor.” That is a church to be reckoned with in public life, not because of the power it has gained, but because of the credibility it has won. In identifying with the lowly, it can reach the high and mighty.

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