December 21, 2013 by Alex Johannigman
It’s ironic that we live in a world where one of the most influential, most praised, most respected, and most admired people in the world is also one of the world’s humblest. Only 9 months into his papacy, Pope Francis has captured the attention of the world, including not just Catholics, but also Protestants, atheists, ex-Catholics, and most recently, the attention of Time Magazine, which has named him their “Person of the Year” for 2013. It seems all but the biggest critics of the church have nice things to say about Pope Francis, from musician Elton John claiming he is “a miracle of humility in an era of vanity,” in an interview with Vanity Fair, to comedian Chris Rock saying on Twitter “I might be crazy but I got this weird feeling that the new pope might be the greatest man alive.” I can’t even post anything about Pope Francis on my Facebook page without at least a couple “I’m an Atheist/ Methodist/ Muslim/ Baptist/ Agnostic/ Jew, but I love this Pope Francis guy” comments from my non-Catholic friends.
Many are critical of the attention Pope Francis has been getting, suggesting that it is mostly due to the media spinning his words to fit their own agendas, or in some cases, going so far as to argue that Pope Francis’ teaching has traveled too far from true church doctrine, seeking to appeal to the masses at the expense of losing her orthodoxy. While I do think that the media’s misunderstanding of the Pope’s words has a part to play, and there are many who will continue to hate the church because her message challenges their own worldviews in a very uncomfortable way, just as Christ promised us that they would, I think the main reason why he is attracting the attention and love of so many people is because the gospel of Jesus Christ, by its very nature, is a very attractive message, and one that every one of our hearts has an innate longing for, especially when it is preached with the amount of joy and enthusiasm that Pope Francis has. It’s a message that many are hearing for the first time due to poor evangelization, negative encounters with Christianity and Catholicism due to the mistakes made by her faithful, and other biases against what they understand Catholicism to be. For example, even though Blessed John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke about the importance of loving people who are attracted to the same sex, saying in CCC 2358 “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided,” all it took was Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge?”comment to finally convince many in the media that the Catholic Church doesn’t hate homosexuals. Luckily, somehow, Pope Francis has found a way to convey the gospel message in a simpler, more understandable way by living it out in how he speaks, writes, and most importantly, how he lives his life on a daily basis. And this has allowed the gospel message to reach new audiences beyond those who have already fallen in love with Christ with the help of Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s beautifully written works from their papacies. Like previous popes who addressed contemporary cultural issues like world wars (Pius XII), communism (John Paul II), and the sexual revolution (Paul VI), Pope Francis has also shown a great ability to recognize and address some of the important issues of our time, like a growing disparity between the rich and the poor around the world, the role of women in the church, and increased secularism in the West.
I loved Pope Francis from the very beginning of his papacy after hearing of how he was changing the status quo and acting out of love and humility in a way that few are ever able to do in such an obvious way. I remember reading about him humbly asking for prayers from the onlookers in St. Peter’s Square on the evening of his election. I recall him going back to his hotel the next day to pay his bill in person, and then insisting that he stay in the Vatican guesthouse rather than move into the more comfortable papal apartment. I read about how he took a bus to get around Buenos Aires while he was the archbishop there, and personally called the newsstand owner to cancel his newspaper delivery. He washed the feet of convicts, including two women, one of whom was Muslim, despite outrage from traditionalists. And then after all of that, he started the second month of his papacy.
I’ve found that Pope Francis’ example has challenged me to rethink how I live my life. He has a habit of making everyone a little uncomfortable, both the liberals and the conservatives, the old and the young, the devout Catholics, and those who haven’t made their faith as much of a part of their life as they should have. Nancy Gibbs stated in her summary for why Pope Francis was selected as their Person of the Year, “These days it is bracing to hear a leader say anything that annoys anyone. Now liberals and conservatives alike face a choice as they listen to a new voice of conscience: Which matters more, that this charismatic leader is saying things they think need to be said or that he is also saying things they’d rather not hear?” Whether he is making Republican commentators accuse him of being a Marxist for his concerns about totally unregulated markets harming the poor, bothering Democrats by holding to church teaching on abortion and marriage, or challenging everyone to do more for the poor than they are right now, he’s making us think. And hopefully, because so many seem to like him already, more and more people may start listening to what he, and the Catholic Church that he represents, have to say.
I see a lot of similarities between the Vicar of Christ and Christ himself, who during his ministry on earth challenged the lifestyles and worldviews of Pharisees, Sadducees, lepers, adulterers, tax collectors, fishermen, scribes, Roman centurions, Jews, and Samaritans alike, doing it all in a spirit of humility and charity. Jesus also began his encounters with people by first winning them over with love and forgiveness before he then also challenged them to go further. To go and sin no more. To sell all they have and give to the poor. To be merciful, meek, and humble.
I recall how he caused me to reflect on my life while hearing several of his messages while I was at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro earlier this year among over 3 million other young Catholics. He likened living the Christian life to putting spices on your food, stating that it should have a distinctly new flavor when you allow Christ to transform your life. I can recall him stating that just as professional soccer players prepare rigorously for the World Cup in hopes of winning the prize, we should prepare even more for heaven, which is a far greater prize. It made me really question whether my life had a distinctly different flavor, or if I was really practicing my faith with the passion, intensity, and perseverance that it deserves and that Christ and Pope Francis were calling me to. His challenges to work for a more just society that cares for the poor only made me more excited about my upcoming year of service in downtown Denver.
And he’s not just changing individual hearts such as mine, but the very essence of what the church is perceived to be in the world. More and more people are recognizing that the Catholic Church was not established to be a moral police force of the world, but a “field hospital after battle” for the broken and lost. While he hasn’t changed the church’s teaching on some of its most noticeable and counter-cultural views, he has reminded us that we can’t be focused only on “small-minded rules” to the point where we forget that the core of Christ’s gospel was focused on loving your neighbor, forgiving him seven times seventy times, and repenting of your sins. Minds can only be changed once the heart has been given to God completely first. As Pope Francis’ ministry shows, and as Evangelii Gaudium reminds us multiple times, joy is what brings people to the gospel, and “an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!” And I think he’s really on to something, since it was the joy of other Catholics that I saw on a retreat nearly 3 1/2 years ago that really got me on fire for my faith again, and it is joy that I see in the lives of the apostles through the book of Acts as they were sharing the good news with the world for the first time. I’ve only talked to a few people who converted to Catholicism originally because we have some really attractive rules. Instead, most people fall in love with the wisdom of the church after they fall in love with her head, Jesus Christ.
People love Pope Francis because the message of the gospel is attractive, and it’s a message that the hearts of all men and women are desperately longing for in our present culture. Pope Francis hasn’t really changed the message, it’s a message that the church has had for nearly 2000 years, but he’s certainly changed how people are hearing it. And for that, I am thankful. For that, I’m glad to call him our Holy Father and celebrate the recognition and praise that he’s received from Time Magazine and the rest of the world.