The Pope Francis Challenge

Pope Francis leads a mass at the Roman parish of San Gelasio in Rome, Italy on February 25, 2018. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)
Don’t let distractions endanger the soul.

An unforced error from a Vatican communications office the other day drove me a little something like crazy. The nature of the unforced error is that it is wholly unnecessary and typically distracting. And so it was.

Days before, as the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’s election as pope was approaching, a strong statement from the pope emeritus, Benedict, was released. It emphasized the continuity between the two of them and the importance of their diverse experiences and different pastoral perspectives. To a friend of mine living over there and paying more attention to these things than most, I described the statement as “bizarrely emphatic,” not because what Benedict was voicing struck me as any kind of surprise but because it seemed to be missing something of context.

And so it was. It wasn’t a mere message from B16 but cut from a letter written to the Vatican publishing company. In the letter, he explained that he could not write an endorsement for an eleven-volume set on the theology of Pope Francis, because he had other commitments already. The Vatican office that released the letter showed part of it in a release; it took days for the Associated Press to expose it as a “doctored” photo. That story got more press coverage than the original release . . . as can also be the case with unforced errors. Later, it was further revealed that yet more of the letter had been left unreleased, a part in which Benedict suggested that he was critical of one of the authors included in the eleven-volume work.  The people in the business of the eternal should not be messing around with truth, in matters big and small, making this incident all the more frustrating.

What it underscored, too, is the great missed opportunity for many that five years of Pope Francis has been. His style, his charism, drive some people crazy, too. Some say it confuses, at best. Others see him as driving disorder. And yet others still — those who do not watch day-to-day news from the Vatican but catch images and headlines, images of his embraces or of his going to confession on live television, headlines referring to his famous, misunderstood rhetorical question “Who am I to judge?,” posed in the course of an interview a plane — are taking a second look at the Church. He makes people take a second look at Christianity, at God Himself.

And if you watch him at Masses, you might conclude that this does seem to be the heart of him: a man at prayer, a man who strives every day to know God. Not always getting the execution perfect. But who among us does? As in the Stations of the Cross, which many pray around this time of year, you get up after a fall and keep walking along a way of suffering that has meaning, with people who suffer and who seek meaning. It’s a model of Christianity among the fallen (who are exactly the people Christianity is for!).

Underscoring all of this all are three haunting images that I have encountered in recent days. We cannot let ourselves get distracted from the chief message of these five years of Pope Francis, a message that comes in the form of ideas he repeats again and again: the importance of being merciful, the Church as a field hospital to the wounded, and the necessity of going to the peripheries to encounter people with love.

The first image is of Dexter, a man I encountered on Lexington Avenue the other night. He asked for money, for a place to stay, and for food. He was outside a deli, so I did the obvious thing and asked him if he wanted me to buy him a sandwich or something. He did, and I made a contribution to the place he said he was headed to. He called me an angel. I’m nothing of the sort. I could have done more, frankly, and probably should have. But something is not nothing. We make the perfect the enemy of the good time and again. Encounter people with love. It’s a start. It’s not the typical response, which is to look past the person, or perhaps to the concrete, to avoid noticing.

Pope Francis often talks about weeping in solidarity with the pain of others. There is an urgency in being serious about the business of Christianity, about religion on the frontlines of love, meeting the truth of human needs.

The other two images are of a married couple who are adopting a child from across the country — and of the birthmother of the unborn baby who has more than her fair share of problems, as is often the case in similar situations. The couple has a heart not just for the child but the mother and is scrambling financially to prepare both for flourishing. The couple is connected to many resources, and still it is extremely difficult for them. It seems like it shouldn’t be so hard to help a heroic mother with housing and other basic needs and life skills. And yet it is.

My point is: Pope Francis often talks about weeping in solidarity with the pain of others. This is why. There is an urgency in being serious about the business of Christianity, about religion on the frontlines of love, meeting the truth of human needs. That’s not commentary, that’s not polemics, it’s lived theology, where it truly starts to become comprehensible to people. And beware what distracts from that. That’s the message of five years of Francis, unforced errors and all.