Pope Francis is Time’s Person of the Year.
And, I’ll give some thanks in this short summation of a message of his papacy from Nancy Gibbs: “Don’t just preach; listen, he says. Don’t scold; heal.”
Time had their correction of the year moment the other day when their online poll described him as having rejected Church dogma. And there are certainly things to take issue with in the write-up. Nancy Gibbs acknowledges that “he has not changed the words, but says that “he’s changed the music.” Her point is tone and temperament, and that we can see. If you rewind to JPII audiences with young people, bringing courage and healing to Eastern Europe, though, that’s not entirely new, either. And many church-going Catholics can tell you stories of holy priests who minister to them (I happen to know many priests, and the church in the U.S. is blessed with men who tend not to make headlines so many would never know). But, clearly, in his South American, fatherly style, he is drawing people in and opening doors in unmistakable ways.
And while the media has a lot to learn about the Catholic Church, people have a lot to learn about the Gospels. And, hey, I think we’re all learning over these past months since Pope Benedict’s surprising resignation in February. That’s the remarkable thing, which I tried to point out in my syndicated column this week: The same media outlets that a year ago considered the Catholic Church irrelevant are now listening. They’re getting it incredibly wrong, latching onto convenient sound bytes, loading them with their ideological biases. But they are paying attention. And with prayer and effort, miracles might just happen.
Pope Francis may, in part, be Time’s “Person of the Year” (Can I say “Man of the Year” now since he, well, is one?) because people think they are drawn to him. But it’s Christ he sees in the disfigured man and the drug addict and every man and woman he encounters. That’s what he’s clearly called to model to the world at this time. And that’s why things like religious freedom actually do matter to people beyond believers. Christians serve others not to be nice people but because you see Christ in another if you truly know Christ. It’s about the love of God.
I know there are skeptics about this pope. And I know there are people overjoyed because they see things they like, and believe it’s a papal endorsement of a way of life or political platform or radical change to come. I’d beg you: Listen closer. He is the first person to talk about the importance of politics – what politics needs is people who know the radical demands of the Gospel and so never settle for indifference. They have prudential calls to make but are always seeking to serve as stewards of human life and the full flourishing of freedom – which at its root for a Christian is the freedom to surrender to the will of God, to listen to the Holy Spirit. You know, what Pope Benedict did!
I sometimes joke that I got yelled at by Pope Benedict a year ago. I was in Rome this week and he admonished Catholic leaders there from the Americas to be for real, to not be talking about evangelization, but being truly ablaze with the Holy Spirit, living lives that witness to the Trinitarian reality we profess. I don’t think we convinced him we were hearing it, and so he stepped aside. The world isn’t always being overwhelmed by the mercy of those who profess to be Christian. And so now, maybe a little more, maybe if Pope Francis keeps literally pleading with people, as he does in his homilies and yes, exhortation, to know Divine Mercy.
Pope Benedict opened up a little window in his last talks as pontiff to the prayer life of a pope, as he knew the promptings of the Holy Spirit in his prayer and life. (These are integrated, he reminds us.) And as of yet, we under appreciate Pope Francis as the world’s new Jesuit spiritual director. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the first Jesuit pope’s order, is known, among other things, for his Spiritual Exercises, deeply spiritual and practical ways to recognize good and evil without flinching, to see the movements of good and evil in our hearts and soul. And if you listen to Pope Francis he speaks quite often in his homilies and even in tweets about Satan. Evil is real and he wants that called out and acknowledged, he wants those he shepherds to see it and know it and reject it. Time says Pope Francis isn’t into culture war; he is pastor on a spiritual battlefield here in our world. As Time acknowledges, there is a healing about him: bringing people to the medicine of the Sacraments, opening doors to grace as He encounters it Himself. In the media coverage of “The Gospel of Joy” issued just before Thanksgiving, both the Gospel and joy seemed to be missed. So, too, the true source of hope. It’s not in any economic system or leader. It’s knowledge of the Incarnation (‘tis the season!) and Resurrection. Catholics have to live like we believe it, we have to live counter culturally, as he told volunteers at World Youth Day in Rio. There are obligations believers have: to live the truth of Christ. And that will make all the difference.
Michael Coren and I talk a bit about the pope, including about his economic thought today here. And in his book The Future of Catholicism, Coren reminds readers of what Pope Francis said to his fellow cardinals just after being elected:
We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord. When we are not walking, we stop moving. When we are not building on the stones, what happens? The same thing that happens to children on the beach when they build sandcastles: everything is swept away, there is no solidity. When we do not profess Jesus Christ, the saying of Léon Bloy comes to mind: “Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.” When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.
That’s it. When Christians aren’t Christian, Christ isn’t seen as much as He could be were we authentic about what we profess. At a conference in Mexico City a few weeks ago, some of us noted the repeated use of the word “encounter.” Spent time with Christ in Sacrament and prayer and He may be seen in you, because in that encounter, you have the grace to encounter the Divine in your brother and stranger, and because of this you can never go along content in indifference to evil and injustice. You are drawn to making sure people know they are loved, because you know you are, by the Creator of the world. That’s what Pope Francis is about. And his prayer is not that we all stay tuned for more from him, but that we join him, as laborers in Divine vineyard, that, yes, has a field hospital, and a Way to an eternal home.