On March 13th, 2013, my head was spinning! I was finishing up a short-lived teaching tenure at Cathedral Prep, while making preparations to become the pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Emlenton, PA. In the meantime, on my school-issued I-Pad, I was watching for white smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney. Between 7th and 8th period, the white smoke began pouring out of that chimney. I ran down the Theology department hallway to tell the other teachers Habemus Papam -we have a Pope! I cancelled my 8th period class, and we watched the scene from the St. Peter’s Square unfold. Unfortunately, school dismissed for the day before the new Pope came out on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.
After going to their lockers, about 15 students wandered back into my room to hang on for the Papal announcement. Out came Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, taking the name of Francis (I have to admit, I found it a little odd and surprising that he took an original name, and not one of his predecessors’ names). Out came Pope Francis on the balcony, to the celebration of the nighttime crowd in the Square. He appeared to be missing some clothing at first glance. He was wearing only the Papal White Cassock, and no other vesture. He then began to speak almost “off cuff”, which I found most surprising. Finally, he asked for us to pray for him, humbly bowing down as all prayed silently. Yes, this was a different Papacy, as evidenced by the first 15 minutes of it!
It has been a year since Francis’ election. He has become a big hit with the media, who have given him very favorable treatment. We need to be careful not to view Francis only through the lens of the media. Often times, I wonder if we rely on the media for judgments that we should really be making ourselves. I confess that I have not read all of Francis’ documents (as was the case with Benedict XVI as well). But, as was the case with Benedict, I have surveyed enough of Francis’ message to give a brief treatment of it. I find Francis to be very challenging, especially to us long-time Church-goers. Are we heeding the challenge of this man who is touched by the Holy Spirit as Peter’s successor? Here are three of Pope Francis’ challenges to the Church from year #1.
Francis challenge #1 – Go out and seek the lost sheep: We have spent a lot of time wondering why people are not coming to church in the same numbers as before. Pope Francis’ challenge to us is to go out and find people where they are at, as opposed to hoping they find us! If we do not go out to seek the “lost sheep”, then we actually harm the Church. Francis said, “It is true that going out on to the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But if the church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded church that goes out on to the streets and a sick, withdrawn church, I would definitely choose the first one.
What is Francis telling us? He is telling us that we should be less focused on ourselves, and more focused on others. He is challenging us not to retreat into a comfort zone. We are not asked to protect Jesus from sinners, but we are called to bring Jesus to sinful humanity. After all, we’re sinners too. We are not a rampart against Hell. We need to remember that we are to storm hell’s gates (words of Jesus).
Francis challenge #2 – Be a Christ-centered Church: Pope Francis’ September interview with the Jesuits caused a lot of commotion. This was the interview about not being too obsessed about abortion, contraception, etc. It had a few other controversial statements as well, such as one that seemed to downplay the importance of defending church doctrines. Francis’ style does lead to heartburn in some church circles, doesn’t it? What was missed in the politics that followed this interview was Francis’ profound desire for a Christ-centered Church. In the interview, Francis said, “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.
Wow – that’s quite a challenge! Of course, Francis’ style can be challenging in that he does not use precise theological language, preferring a more familiar style. I think the Pope is simply telling us that we need to put Jesus in the center of our dialogue with non-believers. We cannot begin with the particular rules that are logically connected to Jesus’ Gospel, i.e. moral and ecclesial laws. We must begin with Jesus’ Gospel. We need to regain credibility as witnesses to Christ. The catechesis comes after the proclamation of the Gospel.
Francis challenge #3 – Tend to the needs of the poor: The Pope wrote the Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium). This was the document that led to the Pope being called a Marxist in some political quarters. There was a lot of criticism of the exhortation’s economic theories (this criticism has been leveled against many Popes over the 100 years). Beyond the conflict between capitalists and government regulators, the Pope’s basic challenge must be heard. The Pope challenged us to care about the poor more than we care about our “stuff”, our material possessions. In the exhortation, he said, ““Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality.
What is Pope Francis saying here? Many commentators have tried to interpret this quote politically, ridiculing it as being naïve. But what the Pope is saying is that there should be room for everyone in our society. We tend to exclude some people because they lack skills to contribute to societal growth. We focus on wealth, while we ignore real people who are wasting away morally and physically. This is especially true of the underdeveloped nations, whose peoples lack the most basic necessities. We need to come out of the comfort zone of our pleasurable lives to realize the suffering of others. Jesus wants us to minister to them.
We have been used to a certain style in our Popes. We love all our Popes! We do not need to play favorites with our Popes. Each one was given special grace to lead the Church in their time. This is the time of Pope Francis. Pope Francis’ message is very basic, almost as if coming from a parish priest or lay evangelist. Coming from the office of the Papacy, his words have an added significance. I imagine that all of us have felt squeezed by Pope Francis a few times in the course of the past year. That’s good! Do not let his challenges to us fall on deaf ears. Be willing to heed his call for conversion this Lent, and always.