Cutting Through the Commentary: Pope Francis’ Encounter with Christ

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.

Pope Francis giving Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI an image of Our Lady of Humility.

Pope Francis giving Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI an image of Our Lady of Humility.

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.

The Answer is Presence

Perhaps no apparent injustice compels the human heart to beg the Mystery for an answer as the death of a child does.  That suffering and death is a part of our lives, however enigmatic it remains, is at least swallowable, for we who have sinned much in our adult years.  But the suffering and death of a child tosses the human heart into an entirely different category of questioning and even indictment.

Yet I wonder how many, in the face of death, have the freedom to even get this far.

Recently, a young member of our parish, and one of my daughter’s friends passed away.  She was three-years-old.  As I sat with that cold reality for several days, I observed much about the ways people deal with death – and this is true of the culture as a whole.  Here are a few generic characteristics:

  1. Rational Acceptance – Here, “enlightened” man reduces man to mere matter, a series of biological functions that naturally grind to a halt.  The machine dies.  Everyone’s machine dies.  So what?!  As Epicurus says in Menoeceus, “So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.”
  2. Denial – In the face of death, denial can take on the stoic/apathetic form – simply not allowing your emotions to get involved (i.e. “shutting down”), or, on the other hand, denial can lead one to avoid the reality/pain of death by filling that space with distractions.  One example of this would be a conversation I had with someone who simply would not engage the real question (“Why did this three-year-old have to die?”), the question of meaning and reality, and instead consistently reminded me to never ever take my eyes off of my own children so as to keep them safe.  This position evades the problem.
  3. Entrance into the Mystery of Death – Not many people want to do this.  Not many want to stare death in the face, bear the full brunt of its blow.  As T.S. Eliot said, “Human kind / cannot bear very much reality.”  This is why most of us are…
  4. …Satisfied with trying to impress upon the reality of death our own judgments and reasons for the injustice.  For those of you familiar with Job’s story, this is exactly what Job’s friends (aka. Satan’s little helpers) do – they pin Job’s sufferings (loss of children and physical ailment) into a category (namely that Job was sinful).  But Job was blameless. Personal sin was not the cause of the predicament (not unlike Christ). Preconception and the attempt to humanly compress reality into human reasons simply did not allow the friends to see Job’s righteousness and the real injustice of his suffering.  So too, we offer conjectures (that quickly become dogmatic for us) about why the child (or so-and-so) died.

This is all a big problem for us, because death presents that supreme injustice for man who cannot escape its cold clutch.  That grip that will end everything he was and could have been.  The Christian understands that death is an historical reality before it is biological.  “Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin. ‘Bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned’ is thus ‘the last enemy’ of man left to be conquered” (CCC 1008).  So what is the answer?

When the Lights Went Out that Night

With these general ways of thinking about death in mind, I’d like to ponder the sentiments of the apostles as they lie in bed on that first Good Friday.  What an unspoken and tragic moment.

The man who they had come to believe was God, who had just days prior entered triumphantly into Jerusalem and who had fed them, now lay in a dank tomb, decaying.  How could they stare this apparent complete abandonment in the face – the man they had pinned all of their hopes on, who they had given up everything to follow, seemed to do nothing in the face of his tormentors, or in the face of death, accept surrender to it.  Did the apostles simply accept it?  After all, He was just another man.  Did the apostles deny everything about Him?  Some did.  Did the apostles try to project their own reasons onto the situation?  Probably.  How many of them actually stared His death in the face, allowed the scandal of the cross to penetrate the heart?  How many of them were present to its depth?  Perhaps only the few who actually went all the way to the cross with Him.

“Holy Saturday is the day of the ‘death of God,’ the day which expressed the unparalleled experience of our age, anticipating the fact that God is simply absent, that the grave hides him, that he no longer wakes, no longer speaks, so that on no longer needs to gainsay him but can simply overlook him” (Benedict XVI).

That night, as Good Friday transpired, and the shadowy Saturday came upon the horizon, Jesus himself offered the only adequate response to death.  Not a rationalism, or a stoicism, or even a “good” reason (humanly speaking). In the face of death, He simply offers himself.  He doesn’t offer a clever remark or a power trip, instead, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, offers himself.

Thus the truly satisfying position in front of death does not deny or cheapen or find a “good reason for it,” instead it is simply present to the mystery of death and the Presence that has filled it and made it new.  “Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness; in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment.  Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he.  Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer.  Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it” (Benedict XVI).

Even in death Christ can be encountered as a Presence that transforms death into life. This truth satisfies.  Trite expressions and denial do not.

“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26).