‘Verdict is in: Pope Francis is a global rockstar,” one twitter headline read. Pew Research’s Global Attitudes Project has declared: “Pope Francis’ Image Positive in Much of World.” In his native Argentina, he enjoys a 91 percent favorable rating, and “a median of 60% across 43 nations have a favorable view of the pontiff.”
This comes at the end of a year in which his image has graced just about every unlikely magazine cover — Rolling Stone and The Advocate come to mind. But it’s worth noting that in that Rolling Stone piece, in particular, there was a warning: This warm welcome among elites won’t last if you don’t prove yourself in favor of progressive change.
The truth of the matter is that many still don’t know what to make of Pope Francis. During the recent synod meeting in Rome on the family, which will have follow-ups over the next year, including a papal visit to Philadelphia, people were variously excited, disappointed, or outraged at the prospect that he would be upending Catholic teaching on life and marriage — something he couldn’t do even if he wanted to, as it happens. In truth, what he has done is open a frank conversation. Better that we tell the truth to one another about what people are facing than that we ignore real pastoral needs and pour salt into wounds.
And so the question does indeed remain: Who is this man who became pope almost two years ago? In his new book, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, my friend Austen Ivereigh sets out to paint a more complete picture of the first pope from the Americas.
What is the “radicalism” of this pope? Well, the radicalism of the Gospel. And what does that look like as we draw near 2015? How does it become the life of a Christian, every Christian?
“Francis’s radicalism is born of his extraordinary identification with Jesus after a lifetime of total immersion in the Gospel and mystical prayer,” is how Ivereigh describes it. “That identification,” he continues, “leads him to want to simplify and focus, to increase opportunities for clearing the way for God to act. It results in a dynamic, disconcerting leadership, which while delighting most Catholics and attracting people beyond the boundaries of faith, has dismayed and disconcerted a number of ‘parties’ within the Church.” A “radical may be deeply appealing, but can never be universally liked,” Ivereigh adds.
But, of course, being pope is not a popularity contest. And Francis is not just another celebrity.
Reflecting on the Time “Man of the Year” designation in 2013 among other press coverage, Ivereigh writes: “Without altering a single core Church doctrine — which a pope is not at liberty to do — Francis had achieved what had seemed impossible only a year earlier: to speak to the heart of contemporary Western culture. Catholics no longer had to hunker down defensively; as one journalist put it, ‘the overall effect has been to restore the Church to an admirable and lovable presence on the world stage.’”
But that lovability, if it is to be seen and reflected around the world in the lives of everyday Catholics who are not pope, must be born of that same identification and immersion that has marked the life of Pope Francis, who during confession as a 17-year-old felt called to the priesthood. Whatever one’s vocation, a Christian has a name from which he must live, or he is living a lie.
This is what, if you listen carefully to Pope Francis, he is saying and modeling. What does life look like if it is lived in prayerful encounter with God Himself?
Look to this first Jesuit pope not as a celebrity or politician but as a spiritual guide. He is a man who, like the founder of the Jesuits, Saint Ignatius Loyola, pays “constant attention to spiritual discernment.” This means constantly asking in prayer, “Where is God calling us? What are the temptations and distractions from this call?” “It is a focus,” Ivereigh writes, “that brings a remarkable freedom from the habits and norms of the day, whether in the Church or society,” and it “produces a radicalism rooted in obedience to the Church as God’s instrument on earth.”
For both Ignatius and Francis, Ivereigh writes, “radical reform is ultimately about the courage to strip away the accrued layers of distraction to recover what has been lost. It is a going back in order to go forward.”
When he celebrated Mass in Manger Square in Bethlehem this past May, Pope Francis offered this reflection, one that reads a little bit like a mission statement: “Who are we, as we stand before the Child Jesus? Who are we, standing as we stand before today’s children? Are we like Mary and Joseph, who welcomed Jesus and cared for him with the love of a father and a mother? Or are we like Herod, who wanted to eliminate him? Are we like the shepherds, who went in haste to kneel before him in worship and offer him their humble gifts? Or are we indifferent?”
The radical love of the Gospel is one that takes us out of ourselves. It comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. It helps people see Jesus because He has transformed our lives, and continues to do so. That’s not a political position or program, that’s not fashionable, that’s a Christmas prayer.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.