A teen approached me yesterday and essentially asked, “So, what do you think of the new Pope?”
She was asking because she had heard so many different opinions about him. Ironically, I had been floundering in the same speculative mire a few days before and grappling with the same concerns. Ultimately, this particular teen had heard a lot about Pope Francis, but not much directly from him. On the one hand, this makes sense because he’s only been on the chair for a couple of weeks. On the other hand, this illustrates our tendency to pass judgment quickly based upon preconception, idiosyncrasy, or worse, the preconceptions of others alone. We are not immune to the secular culture and the vaulting of Everyman as the authoritative voice on every matter.
With regard to Catholics and the Pope, this “popular” way of approaching the Pope is both divisive and prideful.
The media (some Catholic media included), in many ways, has placed a subtle wedge between Pope Francis and his predecessor. Francis has been portrayed as the epitome of humility, a poverello who has rejected some of the fancies that have surrounded the papacy, a “pope for the people” (instead of a pope for himself?). These descriptions, which have been so abundant (and perhaps noted so heavily due to complete surprise) have a peculiar impact on the way we perceive the previous papacy, as if Benedict XVI was some nefarious and wealthy egoist. That point only becomes more poignant when we recall that Benedict is still alive. Yet anyone who has encountered Pope Benedict, either in person or in his writings, gains a sense of both his humility and love of the Truth.
So much for a point on division, what about pride? Here I will address the attitude that essentially says, “Pope Francis is not Catholic enough for me?” The answer is simple – who made you the final arbiter on Catholicity? Now, there is one key indicator: Is our Pope a heretic? Look at his track record.
In reflecting upon these phenomena, I am struck ultimately by my own weakness: pride, preconception, lack of openness, etc. But this identification of problems cannot be the final word…
What do I think of the new Pope?
I think the teen’s father (the teen who approached with the initial question) perhaps said it best (as quoted by the teen): “It was unsettling to not have a Pope. Now we have one. We love the Pope.”
Let’s get to know him. In the last 4-5 days I have resigned myself almost exclusively to reading only the Pope himself, instead of a gazillion articles about him. Why?
Because the Pope is Peter, and Christ builds his Church on the experience of Peter. Just look at Peter in the Gospels – a humble, stubborn, zealous, weak, faithful, and unfaithful follower of Jesus. That was his experience of Christ and following Christ – and Christ founds the Church on that experience! I followed Pope Benedict because he witnessed to me the love of Christ based upon his real knowledge, his real encounter, his real experience of Christ. His encounter happened through the Church, yet was unique to him as a human person. The exact same is true of Pope Francis. This man has encountered Christ in his experience, and I need to look with Francis through his experience to learn something new about Christ.
Why don’t we like this?
Because it is uncomfortable.
Numerous times Francis has associated himself in the same pipeline as JPII and Benedict XVI. There is no break. He has called us on to protect the poor and the environment, rooted the whole thing in our need for personal conversion. He is interested in preaching the cross and moving forward only with the cross. And he is urging us to encounter Christ more deeply and more joyfully this week than we ever have before.
Jesus is God, but he lowered himself to walk with us. He is our friend, our brother. He illumines our path here. And in this way we have welcomed him today. And here the first word that I wish to say to you: joy! Do not be men and women of sadness: a Christian can never be sad! Never give way to discouragement! Ours is not a joy born of having many possessions, but from having encountered a Person: Jesus, in our midst; it is born from knowing that with him we are never alone, even at difficult moments, even when our life’s journey comes up against problems and obstacles that seem insurmountable, and there are so many of them! And in this moment the enemy, the devil, comes, often disguised as an angel, and slyly speaks his word to us. Do not listen to him! Let us follow Jesus!
He is our true pastor – let’s get to know him, not commentary about him.