The Christ-Centered Pope
The Catholic Church and the world wrestle with an evangelical papacy.


George Weigel

Perhaps the most revealing detail in Pope Francis’s lengthy interview, conducted by the Italian Jesuit Antonio Spadaro and published yesterday in English translation in the Jesuit journal America, is the pontiff’s reflection on one of his favorite Roman walks, prior to his election:

When I had to come to to Rome, I always stayed in [the neighborhood of the] Via della Scrofa. From there I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of “The Calling of St. Matthew” by Caravaggio. That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew. . . . This is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.

The Calling of St. Matthew is an extraordinary painting in many ways, including Caravaggio’s signature use of light and darkness to heighten the spiritual tension of a scene. In this case, though, the chiaroscuro setting is further intensified by a profoundly theological artistic device: The finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew, seems deliberately to invoke the finger of God as rendered by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Thus Caravaggio, in depicting the summons of the tax collector, unites creation and redemption, God the Father and the incarnate Son, personal call and apostolic mission.

That is who Jorge Mario Bergoglio is: a radically converted Christian disciple who has felt the mercy of God in his own life and who describes himself, without intending any dramatic effect, as “a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” Having heard the call to conversion and responded to it, Bergoglio wants to facilitate others’ hearing of that call, which never ceases to come from God through Christ and the Church.

And that, Bergoglio insists, is what the Church is for: The Church is for evangelization and conversion. Those who have found the new pope’s criticism of a “self-referential Church” puzzling, and those who will find something shockingly new in his critical comments, in his recent interview, about a Church reduced “to a nest protecting our mediocrity,” haven’t been paying sufficient attention. Six years ago, when the Catholic bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean met at the Brazilian shrine of Aparecida to consider the future, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio, was one of the principal intellectual architects of the bishops’ call to put evangelization at the center of Catholic life, and to put Jesus Christ at the center of evangelization. The Latin American Church, long used to being “kept,” once by legal establishment and then by cultural tradition, had to rediscover missionary zeal by rediscovering the Lord Jesus Christ. And so the Latin American bishops, led by Bergoglio, made in their final report a dramatic proposal that amounted to a stinging challenge to decades, if not centuries, of ecclesiastical complacency:

The Church is called to a deep and profound rethinking of its mission. . . . It cannot retreat in response to those who see only confusion, dangers, and threats. . . . What is required is confirming, renewing, and revitalizing the newness of the Gospel . . . out of a personal and community encounter with Jesus Christ that raises up disciples and missionaries. . . . 

A Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of faith, to occasional participation in some sacraments, to the repetition of doctrinal principles, to bland or nervous moralizing, that does not convert the life of the baptized would not withstand the trials of time. . . . We must all start again from Christ, recognizing [with Pope Benedict XVI] that “being Christian is . . . the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

The 21st-century proclamation of Christ must take place in a deeply wounded and not infrequently hostile world. In another revealing personal note, Francis spoke of his fondness for Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion, one of the most striking religious paintings of the 20th century. Chagall’s Jesus is unmistakably Jewish, the traditional blue and white tallis or prayer-shawl replacing the loincloth on the Crucified One. But Chagall’s Christ is also a very contemporary figure, for around the Cross swirl the death-dealing political madnesses and hatreds of the 20th century. And so the pope’s regard for Chagall’s work is of a piece with his description of the Catholic Church of the 21st century as a kind of field hospital on a battlefield strewn with the human wreckage caused by false ideas of the human person and false claims of what makes for happiness. Thus Francis in his interview on the nature of the Church:

I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.

Pope Francis
Six months ago this weekend, the world met a new pope. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, now called Pope Francis, famously came out to St. Peter’s Square and asked for prayers from the gathered Catholic faithful.
Praying was the posture of the 115 cardinals who had gathered in Rome to say goodbye to one pope — something they never thought they’d do with a living pope — and elect a new one.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan explores what went down at the Vatican conclave, and provides a look at who this wildly popular new pope is, in his e-book, Praying in Rome: Reflections on the Conclave and Electing Pope Francis, from Image Catholic. Here are some excerpts from Dolan’s book.
THE CONCLAVE: “OK, Dolan, better get going. This is going to be a big day.” Cardinal Dolan, the man who has been dubbed “America’s pope,” definitely had no head’s up about Benedict's resignation; he was in the same boat as the rest of the world.
Speaking to reporters, Dolan observed: “We need a pope who reminds us of Jesus in the way we need mothers, fathers, priests, and nuns who remind us of Jesus. That’s the basic Christian call, isn’t it? And we need that in a pope.”
While in Rome, Dolan celebrated Mass at his titular Church in Rome, Our Lady of Guadalupe. There, he thought: “I am a parish priest, like I have wanted to be since my first Holy Communion.”
In pre-conclave meetings, “the cardinals spoke from the heart, very honestly, confidently, and thoughtfully. It was a time of prayer, and a time of getting to know one another better in a spirit of fraternal trust and companionship.”
Dolan found himself reflecting on St. Joseph, the baptismal name of Pope Benedict, and “Protector of the Church Universal.” “Known as the custos, which is Latin for caregiver, he was the guardian, the foster father of the Son of God.” Pope Francis’s inaugural Mass in St. Peter’s Square wound up on his feast day.
“I felt some calm in knowing that it’s actually the Holy Spirit who chooses the next pope. ... But am I going to be open to the grace of the Holy Spirit? Am I going to be able to detect the Spirit’s guidance?”
“God gets through to us best when He hints, whispers, or coaxes us to cease the almost-incessant noise in our lives and be still. This conclave provided an opportunity to do that.”
“In the late afternoon of that Tuesday, we spent an hour in prayer in the Pauline Chapel (which is in the Apostolic Palace) and then processed into the Sistine Chapel. As we did so, the choir chanted the Litany of the Saints, asking the heavens to pray with and for us.”
“No debating or conversation goes on during the conclave. The actual time we spent in the Sistine Chapel was an occasion for silence, prayer, and reflection; it is almost a liturgy, a retreat.”
“Every time I voted, I looked up at Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment and went through an examination of conscience: ‘That’s how I’m going to be judged: how I loved and served those in need!’”
“As the magic number of seventy-seven votes was reached, we all applauded, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.”
“When Cardinal Bergoglio said, “Accetto”— that is, “I accept”— we once again broke into applause.”
“The world would soon see the white smoke, and they’d know we had done our jobs: Habemus Papam! We have a pope!”
“At one point we heard the tumultuous crowd go dead silent. I thought to myself, ‘What’s going on?’ It’s pretty tough to get a crowd of two hundred thousand Italians quiet! Only later did I find out that the silence was a response to the Pope’s simple request: ‘Pray for me.’”
THE NEW POPE: “The cardinals were looking for a man who radiated holiness — after all, we call him our Holy Father. We were looking for a man with a good track record of success as a pastor and as a bishop. We were looking for a man who is a good communicator.”
“There was a remarkable calmness and tranquility about Cardinal Bergoglio.”
At a “festive supper” later that night, the new pope said to the cardinals “’May God forgive you for what you’ve done!’ which brought the house down.”
“We later heard that he tried to call Pope Emeritus Benedict with the news, but the communications blackout was still on, so even he could not get a call to go through!” (Pictured, Pope Francis with Pope Benedict.)
At his first Mass in St. Peters's Square, Pope Francis stopped to greet a physically disabled man. Says Dolan: “That embrace wasn’t a photo op. It was a natural act of compassion, an act of love. While his actions are unscripted, they are never artless. There is grace in his spontaneity. He speaks with his actions.”
“At that Mass of Installation... [Cardinal Christoph Schönborn] was in tears throughout the homily, and during it he turned to me and whispered, ‘Listen to him. Listen to him.’ At the end, when we stood up for the Creed, he said to me, ‘Tim, he speaks like Jesus.’ I said, ‘Chris, I think that’s his job description!’”
“Visiting prisons is something I usually try to do three times a year: Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. When I found out the Holy Father was going to a juvenile detention facility on Holy Thursday, I was happy to hear I was on the right track.”
“Francis is spontaneous and natural. When we went up to greet him in the audience after [his first Mass as pope] he called us each by name. That’s impressive.”
“I can’t go anywhere without people saying ‘I love this new pope!’ He’s a real shot in the arm for us as Catholics.” (Pictured, Pope Francis in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
“His strategy and protocol is his sincerity. He does things because that’s what he thinks he should do. He follows his pastoral heart.”
“Perhaps Francis’s greatest gift to us is this reminder that there really is nothing new in the life of the Church.”
“Francis is reenacting Jesus’s own teachings. Francis is, in effect, ushering ancient Biblical principles and essentials into the twenty-first century. None of this is new. It’s just that these images, and these teachings, may have slipped our minds.”
THE CHURCH: “As many problems as we have in the United States, and Lord knows we have a wheelbarrow full of them, when you look at some of the difficulties that the Church is experiencing in other parts of the world, not only do I pray hard for them . . . I pray in gratitude for what we’ve got.”
“Sin does abound in the members of the Church. Sin even abounds within the Vatican. But grace abounds even more.”
Dolan credits Pope Benedict with driving home the themes of the importance of a Christian’s friendship with Christ, the centrality of Jesus in their lives, theological depth, and the urgency of engaging the culture. (Pictured, Dolan with Cosmo founder Helen Gurley Brown.)
“We don’t run from the culture, hide from society, or condemn the world.” (Pictured, Dolan on The Colbert Report.)
Updated: Mar. 01, 2014



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