My predominant memory of a year ago this week was the rain. It was raining near non-stop in Rome. I was among the influx of media there to cover the coming election of a new pope.
Drenched to the bone was a common feeling, though my understanding is it was a lot warmer inside the Sistine Chapel, where the electing would happen.
It was the penitential season of Lent, as it is now. No one predicted what was to come — a cover story on the first pope from the Americas in Rolling Stone being the least among the surprises of the coming year. And yet, in all the uncertainty of a year ago — the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI really unsettled some of the faithful, who had never known such a thing, who wanted the Church to be a rock, who had been all too often shaken by sin and disappointment of men — in all that disquiet, there was a confidence and hope.
During the grayness, there was a holy patience on display last March. Pope Francis used the phrase recently in one of his morning homilies. He pointed to people who know how to suffer with smiles on their faces, who keep “the joy of faith” ever on display even as they face trials and illness. They are the people who, he said, “carry the Church forward with their everyday sanctity,” becoming true reference points. They are the people who show us how to be good, how to be holy — who show us that such a thing is even possible in our world today.
There was something last March about the joy everyone seemed to have even in the rain — as old friends and strangers, brothers and sisters in Christ, would gather in Saint Peter’s Square to see what color the iconic smoke would be — that spoke of a participation in something so much more powerful than any ordinary election, this one resting on a certainty that, one way or another, God would provide.
Writing about this time of transition in the Church’s life in an e-book, Praying in Rome, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan observed that the “major thing,” the main question in the daily life of a Christian, is “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?”
This holy patience — contemplation examining and guiding our actions — is a virtue for our time, now isn’t it? A virtue for every time, to be sure, but now in an urgent way, as what should be the fundamental building blocks of a healthy society seem a bit of a mess: Men and women, family, marriage, and religious liberty all come to mind, and none of them were rocked by a judicial ruling or a congressional vote as much as by failed stewardship and poor witness over the last several decades. The new choices a pill afforded changed our society’s expectations — something our popular culture certainly absorbed with an exuberance and intoxication that kept it from considering the consequences. And now, all too often, when one may be trying to communicate compassionate alternatives, judgment and polarization seem to make the lead of the news stories.
There is something about Pope Francis that has captured the aspirations of the world. It’s something of God. He is a humble servant who points us in the direction of the compelling, joyful alternative that is the life of the Gospels. It’s a self-sacrificial alternative. He seems to be just the tender father we needed as a guide.
“This patience,” he explained, “will cause our lives to mature.” It will keep us from resembling “naughty children” who say: “I want this, I want that, I do not like this,” and are never satisfied with anything.
The pope has referred to the Church as a field hospital. We go to the doctor for checkups, for advice, for medicine. And so it is here. Come to Church, all who are weary, is again and again the pope’s message. There is love there — for you — from the Creator of the universe. There is mercy there: Never tire of asking for God’s forgiveness. There is such grace-filled liberation in this.
As Pope Francis put it in his homily on holy patience: “Every time we go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation we sing a hymn to God’s patience. The Lord carries us on his shoulders, with great patience.”
What a great relief, if you believe this. It is a challenge that requires a decision of daily, albeit imperfect, surrender and offers joy.
A week ago I drove through Boys Town, where you’re greeted by a famous statue of an older boy carrying a younger one on his back, with the words, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” Can we lighten the load for others? Can we show them that they’re not alone? That they are loved? This is where Pope Francis, a holy father, starts us. He wants to help draw us deeper into a practical but also mystical way. It’s one where light breaks through the clouds of the painful dramas of life, and hope becomes palpable, as others live it with us, even as others simply crave it. For anyone feeling drenched — overwhelmed, cold, and weak — there is a transformational warmth just beyond an open door. In the last year, more people have seen that the door is open for them. That is the Christian Gospel’s mandate to evangelize.
Perhaps that’s all you really need to know about Pope Francis: He is invitational; he invites everyone to the life he has dedicated his life to, walking other people through it, because in it he knows the peace and merciful love the world needs. It’s an ecumenical blessing as it offers healing and flourishing. And, yes, a light that illuminates everything.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.