Rome — The pope, petting a seeing-eye dog? It happened at Pope Francis’s audience with members of the media the Saturday morning after his election. As a blind man approached the stage, even the most hardened journalist might have found himself cheering the pontiff on. They wondered: Would he do it? Do popes do such things? Well, of course. They’re human. And knowing Francis of Assisi, his namesake and a friend to all God’s creatures, the room would have been disappointed by anything less.
Saint Francis of Assisi has been described to me in recent days as perhaps even more well known than Jesus Christ — an exaggeration, but worth reflection. We have become a bit comfortable with Francis the peace-and-love saint, almost the “hippie” that Jesus is sometimes portrayed as. In both cases, that characterization might be a door in, but it misses the radical nature of the Christian’s call to total surrender to the will of God, to live the life of a saint. It’s the universal call to holiness.
There is a potential danger in the out-of-the-gates popularity of the new pope. It’s the same kind of danger that would have come had the conclave of cardinals listened to the pundits and picked their favorite, media-friendly cardinal. It’s the danger that we will miss the point.
Take Pope Francis’ call to poverty, for instance.
A healthy walk’s distance from St. Peter’s Square stands San Paolo alla Regola, on the ground where Saint Paul is believed to have first lived in Rome, under house arrest. A simple Baroque church in a Franciscan style, complete with faux marble, beautiful but not ostentatious. It is a subtle reminder that our material goods should always be related to mission. And while we may honor God with riches — there is a magnificent bronze sculpture of Christ crucified — what He is after is our faithfulness.
The men of the Christian Life Movement, or Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, have caught onto this. Dedicated to the Church, they are consecrated laymen, mostly from Peru, who having taken vows of celibacy and obedience. They live and pray together as a community and invite people into it. They lead Bible studies and catechesis as well as sports activities. Realizing that evangelization comes through friendship and engagement, these men witness with their lives. They are delighted to be living out what they believe to be God’s will for them.
Their chaplain, Father José Tola, suggests that while the pontiff himself is a witness of humility and poverty, the poverty he is talking about “goes beyond the material.” He is talking about “a church that is rooted in the essentials; he is calling the Church to go back to the essentials.” This means, “obviously,” that “Jesus Christ must be the center of the Church’s life.” Would that Christians actually live this way! Through selflessness and service, in which charity prevails, you could see this to be of value of the whole world, couldn’t you?
Alejandro Bermudez, a journalist and member of CLM, suggests that the phrase “a Church that is poor for the poor” should be taken “at face value sine glosa — ‘without footnotes,’ as St. Francis of Assisi said about how we should live the Gospel — no matter how challenging it sounds and how radically we need to change.”
This Holy Thursday, Pope Francis will wash the feet of teenagers at a prison for minors. When Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass there in 2007, he said, in the Chapel of the Merciful Father: “We live with others, we were created together with others and only in being with others, in giving ourselves to others, do we find life.”
Benedict continued: “The human being is a creature in whom God has impressed his own image, a creature who is attracted to the horizon of his Grace, but he is also a frail creature exposed to evil but also capable of good. And lastly, the human being is a free person.”
He said that “we must understand” what freedom is and what it is not: “Freedom, we can say, is a springboard from which to dive into the infinite sea of divine goodness, but it can also become a tilted plane on which to slide towards the abyss of sin and evil and thus also to lose freedom and our dignity.”
When we listen, we notice the great continuity between Popes Benedict and Francis. We see that the Christian message is about freedom: the freedom to choose to live for eternity, in this instant and the next. There’s no app for that, but plenty of people, who by their daily choices free themselves from the worldly chains that would drag them down, help one another along the way.
So much of what the Church is heard saying can be understood only when this is understood: that its message is one of constant conversion, of a freedom beyond this world, of love and mercy. When we begin to look at the world no longer through our political lenses, we see what’s different about the Church and what it has to offer the world, in an ecumenical spirit. That’s some of what the members of the media here, over 5,000 strong, seemed so fascinated by after Pope Benedict’s resignation. Francis has caught the attention of the world. Christians, the world is paying attention, wanting us to live our call.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA.