The pope, petting a seeing-eye dog? It happened at Pope Francis’ media conference 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.
St. Francis of Assisi, the new pope’s namesake, has been described to me in recent days here as perhaps even more well-known than Jesus Christ — an exaggeration, but also worth reflection. St. Francis has become a bit of a simplified saint. Peace, love and kindness to animals, Francis is sometimes portrayed as a “hippie.” This misses the radical nature of God’s love and the Christian’s duty to it.
There is a potential danger in the out-of-the-gates popularity of the new pope. With all the hoopla surrounding him, we could miss the larger point.
Take Pope Francis’ call to poverty, for instance.
A healthy walk from St. Peter’s Square stands San Paolo alla Regola, on the ground where St. Paul is believed to have first lived in Rome, under house arrest. It’s a Baroque church, in a Franciscan style complete with faux marble — beautiful but nowhere near ostentatious. It’s a subtle reminder that our material goods should always be related to our 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 who live there have caught on to this. So much so that they are consecrated laymen — they take vows of celibacy and obedience — dedicated to the Church, living in a convent. They pray together as a community, they invite people in — there is Bible study for men and women, catechesis, as well as sports. They know that evangelization comes through friendship and engagement. And these men witness with their lives, reaching out and inviting people in. They’re living what they believe to be God’s will for them, and are delighted to do so.
Their chaplain, Fr. Jose Tola, says the pope is reminding us that “Jesus Christ must be the center of the Church’s life.” Would that Christians actually live this way!
Alejandro Bermudez, a journalist in town for the papal transition, suggests that the phrase “a Church that is poor for the poor” should be taken “at face value sine glossa — ‘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: “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.”
He said that as creatures made in God’s image but endowed with the will to choose our own path, to accept or reject God’s love, we must discern 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 toward the abyss of sin and evil and thus also to lose freedom and our dignity,” Pope Benedict said.
So much of what the Church says can only be comprehended when this is understood: Its message is one of constant conversion, of a freedom beyond this world, of love and mercy. When we start looking and hearing outside our political viewpoints, we see what’s different here, and what it has to offer the world. That’s some of what the media seem so fascinated by, during Pope Benedict’s post-resignation period. Francis has caught the attention of the world. Christians, the world is paying attention, wanting us to live our call.