Pope Francis and the Real, Rigorous, Joy of a People of Hope

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

This morning Pope Francis tweeted, asking as he did a year ago when he began his pontificate:

It’s been quite the year. Standing in St. Peter’s Square a year ago today, who would have known what would come? The viral photos. The magazine covers. “The Francis effect.”

But as my friend Father Steve Grunow, CEO of Word on Fire (the people who brought us the Catholicism series that partially aired on PBS in recent years), put it earlier this week, there is a danger for the faithful and for interested observers that we treat Pope Francis a little like a St. Francis statue in a garden: It feels good to have him there. He’s popular. He’s holy. I feel good about the Church now, some say. But the point is that he wants to bring people to Christ and challenge Christians to be real. To simply feel good about him or dismiss his challenges — which are the radical challenges of the Gospel – misses the message.

Pope Francis often delivers lessons in his homilies in threes, so here are three constants of the last year with Pope Francis:

  1. The Holy Spirit
  2. Prayerful Pleading
  3. Divine Mercy and Joy

That night in St. Peter’s Square, it was cold and raining. As I wrote in my syndicated column this week, that had been the weather for the papal conclave. Pope Benedict left the Vatican and the skies seemed to be reflecting the uncertainty in many hearts and the ongoing Lenten season. Once we saw the white smoke, excitement broke out. Adults had a childlike innocence in anticipation and a sense of the historic moment. As we waited to meet the new pope, there was speculation, there was an influx into the square, and what could have broken out into an angry mob scene with all the umbrellas and waiting became a joyful time of prayer and fellowship. Where are you from?, someone would ask, hearing English. Canada! I bet the new pope is Cardinal Ouellet! Americans from Boston were ready for Cardinal O’Malley, who seemed to be the guess of the Romans in the streets, intrigued and attracted as they were by the monkish style of the Capuchin.

And then came the silence. It stopped raining. And as activity began on the balcony – the balcony – silence fell. One TV crew above thought they had lost audio, it was so silent. I remember explaining it on TV later that night as the silence of the Holy Spirit, a people — a Church — united in prayer.

A papal election isn’t a presidential primary or general election. We who pay too much attention talk about “papabile,” possible popes. Going in, most smart money, as they say, didn’t have Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Too old. But God’s time is not ours. And our choice may not be his. I was with the cardinals as they prayed before the conclave. Some of the most gregarious were the most contemplative, men in intense prayerful discernment.

Something was set in motion when Pope Benedict discerned his decision to step away from the papacy, and something more followed when, in meetings before the conclave Bergoglio talked about apostolic zeal and warned against a self-referential Church. Something was stirred. And so it has been. I often say, when asked about the pope, that if one reads or listens to Pope Francis and is not challenged, one is not listening. I’m challenged by it all, and that’s the point. I often read him and am reminded he is a Jesuit. The order’s founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, left us some rigorous spiritual exercises that can stretch and strengthen the human heart. He invites people into the Church — to hear what it proposes, to meet Christ there — with his joy, his confidence in Christ, whom he encounters in prayer, whom he knows. And he challenges Catholics to let the Holy Spirit stretch their hearts. As with his threes, his is a Trinitarian invitation, to live in the reality that every woman and man is a beloved child of the Creator of the world, whose redemption is in Christ, who is never alone, but has the real counsel of the Holy Spirit.

I’ll never forget laughing in St. Peter’s Square the next Sunday morning. My friend Austen Ivereigh was translating the new pope’s Italian for me, and he started it! What joy as he translated, as the pope was pleading, repeating himself again and again. Never tire of asking for God’s mercy! He never tires of forgiving us! So many of his morning homilies involve pleading, often repeating this, almost always pointing to the sacraments and the Beatitudes. A composite might look something like: We are a people of the Sermon on the Mount; we have hope; we must live as if we truly believe it if we do! Later in the year, in June, Pope Francis would go to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa and talk about weeping. Do we weep for our brothers and sisters in pain? Here people fleeing from the Arab Spring were dying en route and did anyone care? These are our brothers and sisters! If we believe this, we must work toward something better. To truly feel the pain that the Body of Christ is suffering is a proper Christian outlook. Suffer with people. Go out and minister. Pray. But this isn’t just about social service. It’s something deeper. It’s knowing that love is self-sacrificial and seeking to reflect and be united with that self-sacrificial love of the Savior’s life, passion, and death, which we believe has the promise of the resurrection.

But while I have been struck by his pleading, so much of what has attracted people to Pope Francis is his joy, which stems from knowing the merciful, gratuitous love of God. As Alejandro Bermudez puts it in an interview with me today about the anniversary, you miss the story of this new pope if you don’t read and reread and take seriously his “Gospel of Joy.” There’s so much more there than most have considered. For those looking for a Lenten discipline or reflection, a prayerful reading of this exhortation might fit the bill.

And about that mercy. The big canonizations next month — of John Paul II and John XXII — will happen on Divine Mercy Sunday, the Sunday after Easter, a day focused on a devotion JPII loved and made more mainstream. Knowing the mercy of God is such an overwhelming theme of Pope Francis’s first year as pope. He’s made popular a painting and devotion to Mary as an untier of knots, and what knots exist in the world today and in human hearts. With his open arms in St. Peter’s Square, in the streets of Rio, in a holy father’s loving words and smile, he is inviting people into encounter with that mercy. It’s the mercy at the heart of salvation history and it’s the door into the fullness of life and eternal flourishing that is what the Church wants to propose to the world in its teachings, in its introduction to Christ. The most important thing to know about the man who is Pope Francis is that he is a sinner who knows the merciful love of God. He invites you to see the joy that is found in this knowledge. 

It’s been quite the year. I know there has been unease and worry, but I confess I am trusting the Holy Spirit and taking the pope at his word and praying for him – so that it is always the Holy Spirit he turns to and follows.

We live in a mess of a world. And Pope Francis, along with Pope Benedict, proposed in their encyclical on “The Light of Faith” this year, that real faith illuminates everything. People taking this seriously aren’t bad to have around, as evidenced by Pope Francis and his leading with love. It’s something for a culture – and hearts – that has internalized secularization and the privatization of spirituality to consider.