How easily I forget the gift of faith and fall prey to the temptations of pride: "If only I articulate the Church's teachings with enough precision and philosophical force, then they'll have to believe," I tell myself. But now I hear Francis, echoing the Tradition, and reminding me that my faith is undeserved and beyond my abilities to reason toward. "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 16:17).
The message of the Gospel is not a philosophical argument. It's an event, an encounter with the Word of God, made flesh, crucified and now risen. Jesus is alive. He moves among us. As we awaken to this reality, sin and death lose their grip and no longer have any power over us, and the Church's moral teachings become more obvious, if not beautiful.
"Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others? (The Joy of the Gospel, EG, 8).
Pope Francis has instilled in me a renewed focus on the love of God made manifest in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and, through the wisdom of his teachings, I hear the LORD calling me deeper into the mystery of Christian joy.
bound up with the mystical Christ:
"My mission of being in the heart of the people is not just a part of my life or a badge I can take off; it is not an “extra” or just another moment in life. Instead, it is something I cannot uproot from my being without destroying my very self. I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world" (EG, 273).
If that's not the self-identification of a saint, I don't know what is. Francis calls me to lose myself in Christ. He has reminded me of the saint's mission, and why my entire life must be taken up into the gift of salvation that comes to us through the Church.
"We have to regard ourselves as sealed, even branded, by this mission of bringing light, blessing,
enlivening, raising up, healing and freeing...But once we separate our work from our private lives, everything turns grey and we will always be seeking recognition or asserting our needs. We stop being a people" (EG, 273).
When I read this, I'm reminded that my mission is the mission of a saint, and I feel called to let this mission be intentionally integrated into everything I do.
3. He Actively Seeks Out the Poor: Rumor has it, the Holy Father has been sneaking out at night to serve the needy, to eat with them, and to let them know they're loved. We aren't completely certain about his late night activities since becoming pope, but this was a consistent habit of his as a cardinal, and we do know he has appointed someone to the little-known office of "Vatican Almoner" as an extension of himself in these matters. Archbishop Konrad Kajewski reported these words from the pope when he accepted the position: "Sell your desk. You won't need it." See the entire article here.
The Vatican Almoner is said to have given out over two million euro this year. Francis has been aggressively using this position, as it cuts through the bureaucratic red tape and meets the immediate needs of the poor in Rome as they arise. He goes out to meet them. "You need to get out of the Vatican. Don't wait for people to come ringing. You need to go out and look for the poor," he told the Archbishop.
How has this inspired me? I get so caught up in my own concerns. Something deep in my heart resists the other-centeredness I need to truly love the poor who are always with me (Matthew 26:11). In still another way, Pope Francis reminds me what it really means to strive after holiness.
When Pope Benedict XVI put on the red shoes, it was an act of sheer humility. He was giving himself to the Church. Standing on the blood of the martyrs, he swore to guard the faith they died to bring us. The shoes were for him a constant reminder. Yet the world scoffed at the sign as an act of triumphalism.
It's not without irony that Francis' removal of the red shoes became the symbol of humility the shoes once were. He's on a mission and he hasn't the time to explain the richness of a symbol the world doesn't want to understand. He wisely "puts on" a synonymous symbol the world does understand, by taking them off. And I have to admit that my own conditioned sentiments received his action more readily. Maybe that's a modern weakness of mine, but this pastoral move of his has been a powerful reminder of my own call to Christ-like humility, and it's even helped me to appreciate more fully the red shoes themselves.
A saint is willing to express the truth of Jesus Christ with cultural relevance. Pope Francis challenges me to pay attention to how my actions are being interpreted, and to be humble enough to adjust my efforts accordingly.
5. He Convicts Me of My Sinfulness: Like a true father, Francis is unwilling to take sides as he courageously calls all of his spiritual children higher. If you haven't yet read Evangelii Gaudium, do so and you won't be disappointed. Chapter two (especially paragraphs 76-101) was particularly powerful for me. It left me so clearly convicted of my own broken behaviors and sincerely repentant for my part in the scandal of sin among Christians. I found myself continually "scolded" by his penetrating boldness into the many sinful ways of acting and thinking that I've come to justify as necessary, unavoidable, out of my control, or even good. It read for me as a thoroughly relevant and convicting examination of conscience.
Much of what he said cut to the heart, but here's an example that left me particularly devastated by some of my actions. Say "No to spiritual worldliness," he admonishes:
"Spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church...a subtle way of seeking one's 'own interests'...based on carefully cultivated appearance" is fueled by a "self-absorbed promethean neopalagianism...ultimately trusting only in their own powers and feeling superior to others because they observe certain rules. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying" (EG, 93-97).
If I'm brutally honest with myself, he's right. In different ways, I find myself tempted by this "insidious worldliness" at every turn. The truth is, everything he mentions in that section of the letter, at least in some way, speaks directly to an area of sin in my life. How grateful I am for this much needed examination of conscience, and to Pope Francis for encouraging me (as a father should) to overcome these temptations.
The world is taking notice, and its been a powerful reminder in my own life as well. When I saw him holding the man with neurofibromatosis so tenderly in his arms, the indifference in my soul was shattered. How many times have I hardened my heart to the "deformed ones" in my life and failed to let the love of God flow from my own acts of tenderness and compassion. In an undeniable way, Pope Francis shows me what love looks like.
As Vicar of Christ and visible head of the Church, the mission comes to me with penetrating clarity through his representative status. Pope Francis' teachings, as well as his living example, appear to be the next stage in my formation. I'm confident his papacy is a divine appointment, and a true gift to the modern world, because I've never been more convicted of my call to be a saint.
John Paul II was a warrior poet, a true philosopher pope and a saint. Benedict XVI is arguably the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. Francis? He's no slouch when it comes to philosophy and theology but, above all, he's proving to be the pastoral pope. I believe his predecessors have
faithfully prepared the way for a saintly shepherd the Church's lost sheep will finally follow.
I know I will.