Amy Welborn is spot on in identifying what she calls the weird sense of “relief” expressed by many on the election of Pope Francis. To be honest, I’ve been getting the impression that in certain quarters, people aren’t so much rejoicing that Pope Francis was elected as much as they are rejoicing at what they imagine to be the end of the papal era of JPII and BXVI with their shared focus on personal responsibility, the authentic nature of love, and the importance of the Church’s moral teaching. Maybe I’m just looking for trouble, but it seems to me that some folks are genuinely relieved that we’re “finally” going to get off that old “love and responsibility” grind and get back to doing what the Church is “supposed” to be about–tending to the poor and downtrodden–as if we’ve been ignoring this work for the last 33-odd years under JPII and Benedict. This, of course, is utter nonsense.
My fear is that a lot of what, superficially, looks like joy at Pope Francis’ humility and message of compassion for the least is really a potentially serious case of what I like to call, “White, Middle-Class Suburban Parish Syndrome” (WMCSPSP)> WMCSPS is the condition that affects Catholics who believe, “WE’RE just fine the way we are, thank you very much. LOOK at US. After all, WE’RE the UPSTANDING people. WE are at mass EVERY SUNDAY. WE DONATE MONEY to the poor. WE READ at Mass. WE VOLUNTEER once a year at the soup kitchen. WE don’t need CONVERSION. OUR job is to make THOSE PEOPLE (i.e., the poor, the less fortunate, etc.) look more like US.”
WMCSPS is a very common spiritual disease and without proper treatment–ongoing, internal conversion–the condition is, sadly, terminal.
I’ve always felt that Pope JPII and Pope Benedict were especially good at reminding everyone that poverty is not just a economic condition that applies to certain people who struggle to have even their most basic needs met. There is also a spiritual poverty that exists and is, in some cases, even more dangerous. Spiritual poverty is the tendency to ignore the call to ongoing personal conversation and conforming one’s life to the Gospel regardless of one’s circumstances.
Pope JPII and Benedict were terrific at forcing all people–rich and poor alike–to confront their personal selfishness and turn to God. They were true social justice Catholics because they understood that social justice isn’t an economic project or a day of volunteering at the soup kitchen, it is a means of converting the hearts of all men by empowering us to conquer both selfishness and the use of others wherever these negative traits are found–whether in our bedrooms, our homes, our communities, our institutions, our governments, or our world.
I, frankly, believe that Pope Francis has a similar gift. I think he could challenge all of us even more if we let him. But I am concerned that it will be very tempting to feel that as long as we are attending to the needs of “those people” over there, that we will finally all get a pass on all the more personal sins that go on inside of us right here. Pope Francis’ personal example of humility and service is, it seems to me, rooted in a very deep, authentic, ongoing process of personal conversion. We would do well to follow not just his external external example of caring for the poor, but his internal example of addressing our own sickness and poverty–especially when it comes to our struggle with the very personal sins of contraception, abortion, divorce, and the like, that cause us to objectify the people we encounter. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy, to be authentic, must be the fruit of our efforts to love God more and live his truth more authentically in our hearts and with the people who are our closest neighbors–our spouse and children. Focusing on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy without converting our own hearts is the equivalent of making ourselves into those “whited sepulchres” Jesus was, ahem, so fond of.
Granted, keeping up the hard work of personal conversion in our hearts and home isn’t as romantic as just being able to think of Pope Francis as a light that makes us all look better in his glow, but it is how we stop merely looking at Christ and start looking like Christ.