“Only charity can convert the soul, freeing it from unworthy motives.”
– St. Bernard of Clairvaux
And so Time Magazine has spoken. Pope Francis is the 2013 “Person of the Year”. Years ago, when I had an insatiable appetite for the news, I would gleefully snatch up each year’s iconic anointment of the man (or woman) who earned the hallowed title of “Person of the Year”. Presidents, despots, innovators, and iconoclasts have merited the accolade. However, Time Magazine has become increasingly intent on assuring us that the award is no endorsement or sign of approval. Rather, it is an indication of a recipient’s profound influence, for better or worse, as the choice of past winners such as Adolf Hitler, the Ayatollah Khomeini and Joseph Stalin (twice) seems to demonstrate. Pope Francis would be the third Pope to be chosen after John XXIII and John Paul II.
Now that I am older, I am less interested and more skeptical of the news. Mind you, as a Catholic admirer and follower of Pope Francis, I was thrilled for the positive publicity this award may gain for him, his style and Catholicism. At the same time, I was leery that the story risked being a back-handed compliment – that Pope Francis and his style are appreciated only because they are juxatposed against all that Time Magazine sees is wrong with the Catholic church. So with a wary eye, I waded into the piece.
In reading the “Person of the Year”, I was pleasantly surprised that it was a fairly decent article. Of course there were the gratuitous potshots at Catholicism by authors Chua-Eoan and Dias such as,
“[The Catholic Church is an institution] so steeped in order, so snarled by bureaucracy, so vast in its charity, so weighted by its scandals, so polarizing to those who study its teachings, so mysterious to those who don’t…”
“People [are] weary of the endless parsing of sexual ethics, the buck-passing infighting over lines of authority when all the while (to borrow from Milton), ‘the hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed.'”
Additionally, there were several unfortunate sidelong characterizations of Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, men with flaws like all men to be sure, as tight-fisted and tin-eared leaders in circumstances of nuance and complexity unappreciated by the authors. Generally speaking though, the piece provided touching moments in the life and philosophy of the humble Jorge Mario Bergoglio on his unlikely road to becoming Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.
As I finished reading the article and tuning into the assorted reactions, I wondered, “Just who is Pope Francis to me?”. Surely as a Catholic, I see the Pope as the spiritual leader of my Church and the custodian of its doctrine. Additionally, he is an international diplomat with a moral and spiritual charge. But upon deeper consideration, if pushed, I would call Pope Francis “an almsgiver”.
Look at how he gives. That is the thought that keeps recurring to me when I think about Pope Francis. While Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were extraordinary Popes with immense gifts and selfless spirits, I see John Paul II’s strength as a courageous deliverer and Benedict XVI’s as an intellectual beacon. But, Pope Francis? Look at how he gives. Of course, the risk is to be cynical that his behavior is a disingenuous affectation to create good photo opportunities (“Of course, he gives. He’s the Pope.” or “What do you expect with the cameras always on him.”). And yet, there is too much evidence of a life of deeply devoted to almsgiving. In story after story, anecdote after anecdote, Pope Francis/Cardinal Bergoglio has been found wading into the toughest Buenos Aires neighborhoods, speaking truth to ruthless political leaders, living in spartan conditions when in the most prestigious of positions, making geunine phone calls of comfort and reconciliation to the least likely or deserving, recognizing and championing the dignity of those abandoned by a heartless, utilitarian society, and breaking protocol (not doctrine) in the name of the poor, the weak, the disfigured and the outcast. Under dire circumstances and uncertain times, the Pope Francis proved faithful to his call – even when it hurt, when it is difficult, or when it is controversial. Look at how he gives.
In a selfish world (and I am foremost among the selfish), it is simply vital for us to let go of ourselves and give to others. Christ is our first model for this. Gospel story after Gospel story are filled with Charity – The Good Samaritan, The Feeding of the 5000, Lazarus and the Rich Man, the Unmerciful Servant – to name a few. In The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor describes how Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins answered a letter asking him how to believe in God by simply saying,
Dorothy Day, in her great work of charity, admonished the haughty,
“The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”
And Charles Dickens captured the indispensability of almsgiving in the immortalized exchange between Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Jacob Marley,
“’But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,’ faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“‘Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ‘Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’”
It seems it is one of the many paradoxes of our Faith: that to truly fill yourself, you must empty yourself. And it is not about some self-congratulatory feeling that comes from giving, but rather a deeper mystical (even incomprehensible) process of growth that happens when a loving act devoted to another is undertaken. Almsgiving changes us (and others) in ways that we will never quite understand. Wonderfully, brilliantly it enlarges our lives. To be sure, it is a small treasure in stored in heaven.
Perhaps one of my favorite anecdotes about the Pope was retold by Howard Chua-Eoan and Elizabeth Dias in their Time Magazine article. It is about the chief designated almsgiver in the Vatican,
“[Pope Francis] has turned the once obscure Vatican Almoner, an agency that has been around for about 800 years and is often reserved for an aging Catholic diplomat, over to the dynamic 50-year-old Polish Archbishop Konrad Krajewski and told him to make it the Holy See’s new front porch. ‘You can sell your desk,’ Francis told Krajewski. ‘You don’t need it. You need to get out of the Vatican. Don’t wait for people to come ringing. You need to go out and look for the poor.’…Francis often gives Krajewski stacks of letters with his instructions to help the people who have written to him and asked for aid. In what sounds like a necessary precaution, the Vatican recently issued a denial after Krajewski hinted that Francis himself sometimes slips out of the Vatican dressed as an ordinary priest to hand out alms.”
Look at how he gives. Look at how he gives. Pope Francis…the Person of the Year? Sure. Almsgiver? Definitely.