Why Pope Francis is a perfect fit for today’s world

GreatleooneSomething tells me Pope Leo the Great didn’t kiss a lot of babies.

In his defense, he had his hands full keeping order in Rome a century after it was abandoned for Constantinople by the imperial leadership. Also, he had that minor chore of negotiating with Attila the Hun to prevent the destruction of the Eternal City.

So chances are he wasn’t warm and fuzzy. But that’s not necessarily what the people needed at the time.

Marauders aren’t waiting at the city gates for Pope Francis, but he and Leo have something special in common: Francis, too, is a great match for the needs of the world at a particular moment.

He demonstrates a humility that is refreshingly countercultural. Days after being launched into celebrity status he returned to his hotel to pay the bill. Since then his pontificate has included more “jes’ folks” moments. While others are using power and fame to remove themselves from everyday situations, he is using his to elevate the mundane.

Speaking of money, Francis’ emphasis on poverty is timely. Widening gaps between rich and poor have us at a frightening crossroads, with unconscionable numbers of people in dire straits – both in the first- and developing worlds – every day. Meanwhile, the haves keep having more, and many cultures thoughtlessly celebrate excess.

Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry. We all have to think if we can become a little poorer, all of us have to do this. How can I become a little poorer in order to be more like Jesus, who was the poor Teacher?” – (quoted in NCR)

A pope who highlights poverty casts a harsh light on economic equality. The Gospel message is clear about care for the poor and attachments to money, but we allow ourselves to water the message down. That we should care for the poor, and even be poor ourselves, is again countercultural and hard to hear.

Not only does Francis bring a message of peace (such as his statements on Syria), he spreads that message while connecting people in networks of solidarity. By asking all Catholics to fast and pray for peace in Syria, and asking other people of faith to participate in whatever way they could, he allowed people to feel like part of a “we”. Inclusion is one other deep need of the human heart, and Francis is using the unprecedented amount of connectedness that modern technology allows to draw us together.

He is also using technology to reach individuals, though he seems to prefer the phone for his outreach. Recently it was reported that he called an unwed mother to offer her support and encouragement after she learned the father of her child was married and wanted her to have an abortion.

That last example speaks to the biggest need that Francis is meeting right now: the need for clear signs of love. Economies are fragile, wars are imminent, anger is easily accessed and people are scared.

In an age where culture wars play out on TV and easy answers are found with a few clicks of the mouse, perhaps we don’t need a leader who beats us over the head with the rules. We know the rules. Instead of reminding us of doctrine, Francis reminds us of the value that undergirds and supports doctrine, and the reason we have doctrine: love.

By leading with his heart, Francis appeals to the many people weary of arguments and an approach to faith that is solely rational. I recognize the value of knowing our faith with our head, but that faith is incomplete until we know in our heart that God cares for us and that our lives should be a love affair with God. Who better to show us that than the Vicar of Christ?

Pope Francis at Varginha (2)
photo Tânia Rêgo/ABr (Agência Brasil) [CC-BY-3.0-br], via Wikimedia Commons

How else do you see Pope Francis meeting the needs of the world today?

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6 Responses to Why Pope Francis is a perfect fit for today’s world

  1. Flor says:

    Wonderful entry again, Meg. There’s a lot here I didn’t know. I am ashamed that I still have a cynical part in my heart that is waiting for a mistake, an unveiling. I’m so used to heroes turning out to be deeply flawed that I don’t want to believe. But with every new story I hear about Pope Francis that cynical part diminishes.

    • felicemifa says:

      I think it’s likely that there will at some point be that “fall from grace” moment. I also think that some of this activity is calculated – in the best possible way – to change our image of the pope. Keep reading up on Pope Francis, though. I think he’s the real deal.

  2. Val says:

    I’m in this weird place (which I was actually confronted about by an 80-something and stubborn-as-all-get-out Italian Catholic woman after mass while visiting a church outside the parish where I live recently) that I have every sacrament but Confirmation in the Roman Catholic church (she thought she was going to nail me on taking communion, the look on her face when she couldn’t was priceless). Essentially — as she found out (and she lobbied hard once she did) — I am one Confirmation class and one really, really, really, really, really, really, really, REALLY good confession away from being a model Catholic. But? As it stands, being not merely a Protestant, but a woman with an aim toward ministry, I am the worst kind of heretic.

    Please note that I “took attendance” for the devotional art in the room when I walked into that particular church, and that Teresa of Avila was over my right shoulder, Joan if Arc was behind us, and — most amusingly of all — Hildegard von Bingen was not only over my left shoulder — but was placed directly above the statue of Christ with open arms — for this entire absurd conversation (that last placement is too hilarious to make up) during which I was being hailed as the worst kind of heretic.

    Because, really, I’d just come that morning to pray and consecrate my day to the Lord, not re-run the Council of Trent and defend egalitarianism against complimentarianism.

    It was an awful reminder that the sort of combative denominationalism I so often encounter in my own Protestant circles against Roman Catholicism has a truly ugly and very real counterpart in the Roman Catholic church (Francis recently railed againstthis “triumphalism,” and good for him for doing it, it’s alive and well among some of my own relatives to be sure). This woman started her conversation “It’s good that you are here, there are so few of us left” — which was why I felt I had to set the record straight that I was not as “us” as she thought I was. The potential nature of my devotion to Christ was never on the table (for a fierce love for Christ and worshipping with his people is what keeps a nice Protestant girl showing up for morning mass), only that I was a heretic.

    On the other side, the pontificate is a target by many Protestants and ex-Catholics for a lot of ire and criticism about what is wrong with the Catholic church. And while I know that some of the bias toward total lack of consideration for anything Roman Catholic as anything but evil and heretical is still rather entrenched in many Protestant circles (by people who could use a serious update on the last 500 years of church history including the Council of Trent and Vatican II), what both amuses and surprises (and delights) me about the present Bishop of Rome is how much his words find an ear across ecumenical lines. Even my most open-minded Protestant friends (including my mother, who is very hostile to the Roman Catholic church over their abject failings in the clergy sex abuse scandals) have found an ear to stop and listen to what this man has to say.

    And that’s quite the deal.

    A pope with a more ecumenical following is quite the deal indeed.

    The western world has been rolling its eyes toward the Vatican for decades as “reform” looks a little too much like “status quo” and “business as usual.”

    I would argue — a heretic’s heretic though I may be — that Francis is not only a pope for our time, he’s a pope for a much wider world. He’s captivated many beyond his own ecumenical circles especially among Americans. And I — heretic though I may be — am thoughtfully watching and listening.

    • felicemifa says:

      Very well put. I thought it was quite remarkable that he reached out to other faiths and other Christians about the day of fasting and prayer last weekend, and that he did so with such grace. I hope that the good will that the world feels toward him continues.

      • Val says:

        “Is the Pope a Catholic?”

        I find it beyond wonderful that this particular Bishop of Rome is a Christian first. The world gets that he’s serious about this stuff. Has there been a pope since John XXIII as willing to dialogue about as much? I’m not sure there has.

  3. Kathleen says:

    I also think he’s trying to redirect our attention toward the center and away from all these petty arguments we have. That whole response about how we treat gays shows such a move away from political statements (of either “flavor”) and toward charity. It’s exactly what I’d imagine Christ would say if He got asked the question.

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