So get this: Not only has Pope Francis been named “Man of the Year” by the Italian edition of Vanity Fair, but this comes with the endorsement of Elton John (who, as you might expect, has been a papal critic in the past), who says: “Francis is a miracle of humility in an era of vanity.”
Miracles – indeed.
What they see in him is the love of Christ made manifest. They see this in his embrace of the outcast, the forgotten — the sick and disabled at packed audiences and Masses at the Vatican.
Earlier this week, Pope Francis went to the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa, to be with the Arab Spring refugees who have flooded the island, celebrating Mass and greeting the many Muslims who have fled there. He prayed for the eternal peace of those who have died on their way there.
He sought to “provoke the conscience of all” with the Gospel. He exposed a culture of “indifference,” with words that could indict many of us:
We look upon the brother half dead by the roadside, perhaps we think “poor guy,” and we continue on our way, it’s none of our business; and we feel fine with this. We feel at peace with this, we feel fine! The culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are beautiful but are nothing, are illusions of futility, of the transient, that brings indifference to others, that brings even the globalization of indifference. In this world of globalization we have fallen into a globalization of indifference. We are accustomed to the suffering of others, it doesn’t concern us, it’s none of our business. . . .
“Adam, where are you?” “Where is your brother?” These are the two questions that God puts at the beginning of the story of humanity, and that He also addresses to the men and women of our time, even to us. But I want to set before us a third question: “Who among us has wept for these things, and things like this?” Who has wept for the deaths of these brothers and sisters? Who has wept for the people who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who wanted something to support their families? We are a society that has forgotten the experience of weeping, of “suffering with”: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep! In the Gospel we have heard the cry, the plea, the great lament: “Rachel weeping for her children . . . because they are no more.” Herod sowed death in order to defend his own well-being, his own soap bubble. And this continues to repeat itself. Let us ask the Lord to wipe out [whatever attitude] of Herod remains in our hearts; let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty in the world, in ourselves, and even in those who anonymously make socio-economic decisions that open the way to tragedies like this. “Who has wept?” Who in today’s world has wept?
I always find so moving the sight of Eucharistic adoration on Capitol Hill, which occurs most weeknights at St. Peter’s Church, two blocks from the Capitol building. There’s doing. And there is praying. There is weeping. If we love, we see, and we feel, urged to contribute to something better, but also to shed tears, to pay tribute. Whether suffering from sickness or bad choices, our brothers are just that if we believe we are children of the same Father.
And there is pleading. That’s part of the reason why Pope Francis catches the attention of the world. He’s spent these first months as pontiff pleading with the world to enter into the mystery of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, assuming the Chair of Peter, as he did, just before Holy Week. His great reproposal is one Pope Benedict knew he couldn’t quite catch the attention of Vanity Fair with, as many books about Jesus of Nazareth as he wrote. Still, he focused much of his last remarks on urging encounter with Christ in the sacraments and prayer, with God who humbled himself to become man. He pleads with Catholics to know and love the Lord, to receive His mercy. And, as Elton John knows, this world needs love, as it all so often looks for it in all the wrong places. That encyclical released Friday was all about rediscovering the path of life that offers union with the Trinity.
There’s a whole lot of radical countercultural teaching to repropose to the world, and the encyclical affirms and does some of this too, including on marriage. And while that will continue, it’s the love and mercy overflowing that will be the balm that will open hearts to sacramental salvation in the Church.
And he seems to be doing that work. At a Catholic Media Conference I spoke at last month, one Vatican priest talked about the bold words — indictments and challenges — the pope has been delivering within Vatican walls morning after morning. No one is left comfortable. It’s, in fact, unsettling — as it should be when the pope keeps talking about Satan. But the battle is on and there is a Holy Father in Rome seeking to bring all who will enter into the light of faith and drive a stake through the heart of evil. On Friday, he, with his brother, Pope Benedict XVI, consecrated the Holy See to St. Joseph and Michael, the Archangel. Because some holy intercessors who know good and evil and the wars in the hearts of men could use help about now. And maybe these prayers, with a little Holy Roman inspirational leadership, true prayer, and encounter with the Risen Christ, will work more miracles.
And not just the miracle of an Esquire writer — a self-described atheist — calling Francis “awesome.”
It began when the Pope paid his bill. The day after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named the leader of the world’s billion Catholics, he asked his driver to go back to the hotel in the Vatican where he’d been staying during the Congress of Cardinals, to pay his bill. The payment was completely symbolic of course. That hotel belongs to the Church, and the Church belongs to him. The Pope paid “because he was concerned about giving a good example of what priests and bishops should do.” Paying a bill is a small but vital gesture — it is the most ordinary way that normal people fulfill their obligations. It was the first in a series of moves that have established Pope Francis I as, by far, the coolest, most interesting and potentially revolutionary Pope in memory.
It has now been a little over a hundred days since Francis took over the Vatican, but for Pope-watchers, the excitement has just begun. There is serious upheaval in the Vatican, with outsiders brought into major positions of power, and Francis speaking openly of “a current of corruption” in the Curia, but, as an atheist, I don’t really care about any of that. I’m sure it takes guts and brains to try and reform the Church, but whether the Vatican is a strong or a weak institution is of the smallest possible concern to me. What is much more important is how he has used many small gestures to demonstrate the possibilities of compassion.
He has said that he believes priests should be “shepherds with the smell of the sheep” and he is living that way. He has, pointedly, not moved into the papal apartments, remaining at a cheap hotel where reportedly he eats breakfast with ordinary people. He refuses to take the papal limousine, traveling by minibus instead. More significantly, on Holy Thursday this year, Pope Francis became the first Pope in history to wash the feet of a woman. Not only did he wash the feet of a woman, but that woman was a Muslim. Not only was she a Muslim woman, she was a female inmate at a local prison. He has become famous in Rome as the “chatty” Pope, stopping to embrace children with disabilities. Recently after a kid with Down’s syndrome pointed to the Popemobile, Francis gave him a free ride around Saint Peter’s Square. He has a sense of humor, too. He’s been known to give blessings to groups of Harley Davidson bikers.
These little gestures make a big difference.
Which is no small part of the pope’s point. Faith involves radical surrender that transforms our lives so that we live so differently as to be contagious, to draw people, like a magnet, to the love and mercy of sacramental union with Christ. There won’t be a cover story on the glory of Trinitarian Union anytime soon in Vanity Fair. But, if the authenticity model catches on, those readers might just wonder if those Catholics might be for real and have an alternative lifestyle worth considering.