"Please pray for me!" These most frequently repeated words from Pope Francis hearken back to the powerful gesture with which he began is papacy--bowing on the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square and asking the gathered throng to pray that the Lord would bless him.
On the fourth anniversary of Papa Francesco's pontificate, as we continue to pray for our Holy Father, please consider the following "lenses" through which we might read his increasingly complex papacy:
- Reading a Walking Parable: Jesus used parables to help reveal deep truths about the Kingdom of God. Scenes or images from everyday life, suddenly turned upside down, now compel a decision on the part of the hearer: Will I open my heart to this surprising revelation?
Since his first days as Pope, Francis has continued to use symbolic actions--great and small--to capture the attention of the Church and the world. A walking parable does not just preach about love of neighbor or spiritual warfare or global injustices; rather, he acts in often dramatic fashion to grab us by our lapels and shake us up. Which of Pope Francis' most memorable moments have been particularly compelling for you? Which have been confusing or challenging?
- Tracking a Papal Prophet: From St. John XXIII,
Paul VI and St. John Paul II, through beloved Benedict, our recent
run of popes has certainly been prophetic leaders. However, if the role of a prophet is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" (F.P. Dunne), then
perhaps Pope Francis is best understood not as a reformer but as a prophet.
Part of the unique dynamic with Francis has been his relentless efforts to challenge those inside the Church--and his apparent preference for those outside! In what ways have you felt comforted and/or afflicted by Pope Francis?
- Finding a Third Way: If the political categories of liberal/progressive or conservative/traditional prove to be the only conceptual framework available for reflecting on human existence, then Catholicism has no place to rest its head. Of course, liberals are quick to claim Francis as one of their own, and conservatives seem tempted to reject him for this very reason. But there are too many conflicting realities to make this the true narrative of the pontificate of Pope Francis.
Is it possible that Francis is challenging such trite categories? Might he be offering us a Catholic vision of "evangelical orthodoxy"--or "apostolic orthopraxy"? I am convinced that only a paradoxical narrative--one filled with seeming contradictions--is suitable for Holy Father Francis. The Holy Spirit blows where he wills and always breathes new life into the Church, without ever contradicting himself. Real continuity is never a monolithic stasis, just as real change is never the blind adoption of novelties. What if Pope Francis is a progressive traditionalist?
- Waiting on a Bonaventure: Peter, the Rock, is supposed to be the symbol of
unity. He is like the referee on the field of play who makes sure that
the game flows within the prescribed parameters. But, like St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis seems more concerned with disrupting the regular flow than maintaining the status quo. G.K. Chesterton once observed that St. Francis needed to remind Christians how to be Christian; maybe Pope Francis is trying to remind Catholics how to be Catholic (M. Dopp).
The Lord Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will lead and guide us into all truth, and the charism of infallibility prevent popes from leading the faithful into error on matters of faith or morals. Pope Francis has repeatedly called himself a "faithful son of the Church," and yet he seems to be leaving the work of interpreting his papacy own papacy to others. Thus, much like the Franciscans in the 13th century, perhaps the Church will need to wait for a Pope Bonaventure to connect all of the dots in the picture painted by Francis.
P.S. Clarifying "Who am I to judge?" This sentence has probably been the most quoted line from Pope Francis since his 2013 interview following World Youth Day in Rio. Unfortunately, the original context and full response have been largely ignored (check out the official full-text translation), as has Pope Francis' own explanation from his 2016 book-length interview entitled The Name of God is Mercy:
- Andrea Tornielli: "May I ask you about your experiences as confessor to homosexual people? During the press conference on your return flight from Rio de Janeiro you famously remarked, 'Who am I to judge?'"
Pope Francis: "On that occasion I said this: If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing, who am I to judge that person? I was paraphrasing by heart the Catechism of the Catholic Church where it says that these people should be treated with delicacy and not be marginalized. I am glad that we are talking about 'homosexual people' because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity. And people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies: let us not forget that God loves all his creatures and we are destined to receive his infinite love. I prefer that homosexuals come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together. You can advise them to pray, show goodwill, show them the way, and accompany them along it." (pp. 61-62)