Papa Francis, The Prodigal, and “the Good Son.”

How do you feel about Pope Francis’ style?

I’ve been praying a lot about my reactions to Pope Francis as well the reactions I have read from my fellow Catholic culture warriors.    I have friends–sometimes of the more liberal persuasion (but not all)–who think Pope Francis is an incredible breath of fresh air.  I have other friends–usually more conservative–who can’t believe how much this guy is, in their minds, stinking up the joint.

Ambivalence Observed

As for me, well, I’ve been ambivalent–and honestly, I’ve been troubled and a little ashamed–of my reactions.  In the first place, I have always thought of myself as “the Pope’s man.”  I was 11 when Pope John Paul II was elected to the Throne of Peter and 38 when he died.  I loved him.   I have largely formed my life according to his teachings.    I grew up challenging myself to see marriage and family life through the lens of his Theology of the Body and to do my best to both live out and promote the Church’s vision of life and love.    The same went for Benedict, who was at least a continuation of JPII’s thinking if not his style.  I was fascinated by their minds, intrigued by what I could learn at their feet, and eager to put into practice everything I learned from them, because even though living out their words didn’t necessarily win me any popularity contests by the world’s standards, their counsel taught me how to live a truly blessed life filled with love and faith and joy.  Because of all this, I have, as long as I can remember, had a strong appreciation for the office of the pope.


Which is why my reactions to Pope Francis have bothered me so much.  On the one hand, I find much to admire.  His simplicity.  His heart.  His genuine love for people.  His obvious love for Christ.  On the other hand, I have been genuinely put off–sometimes even angered–by a lot of things he has said that, frankly, have made my job harder.

Remember, most of what I do all day in counseling and on the radio is try to help people live out the Catholic vision of love, sex, and marriage.   In the last several weeks alone, I have had people challenge me in ways I haven’t encountered before.  It used to be that when I made some statement about the Church’s positions on marriage, love and sex, people would accept it.  They wouldn’t always like it, but they knew it was true.   They knew it was true, because even if they didn’t exactly get it, they knew what I was saying at least sounded like what they heard Pope JPII or Pope Benedict say.    But now, all of a sudden, I’m getting a kind-of push back I haven’t experienced before.  “Well, the POPE, said…”  Or,  “That’s not what Pope FRANCIS said the other day….”  As if I haven’t read the same interviews.   Then, when I try to explain what the Pope actually said, for the first time, people are accusing me not of trying to faithfully represent Church teaching, but of engaging in “conservative spin.”    It’s particularly frustrating for me, because the contexts for these discussions are often not some bar or church basement where I’m having a friendly argument with someone to pass the time, but counseling sessions where marriages and families and lives are at stake.    For heaven’s sake, I recently had a client who was struggling with serious faith issues and depression quit counseling with me a few weeks ago because, in his words, “I’m much more of a Pope Francis/Nancy Pelosi Catholic and you’re an old-school, Pope John Paul II Catholic.”

Ouch.  How did that sting me?  Let me count the ways….

So, yes.  I’ve been…disturbed by a lot of what Pope Francis has been saying–or, perhaps more accurately, by how people have too easily been twisting what he has been saying.  At the same time, I believe in the papacy.  I believe the Holy Spirit has a great deal to do with who sits in the Chair of Peter.  I believe that God knows what he is doing in the Church and even if the papal election is a very human process, I believe that God wants to use whomever is elected to teach us–to teach me–something important about being Catholic at this time in history.  And so, unlike a lot of other people who have been openly angry about Pope Francis, I have tried to stay quiet, to talk through my feelings with a few mature Christians I trust, and, most importantly, to pray.  A lot.

The Return of the Prodigal

The past weekend, God smacked me upside the head with an insight that has been convicting me hard ever since.  As I was praying, I was suddenly reminded–or, really, more like slapped in the face with the memory of–the Prodigal Son.  Well, not the prodigal son, exactly. That would have been OK.  I’m fine being the Prodigal Son.  But no.  That wasn’t who God was reminding me of.  Suddenly, it was like God took my face in his hands and pointed me at a mirror, and I saw…the good son.  The good kid who stayed behind, did everything his father told him to do, was probably a little glad to see his annoying, pain-in-the-ass brother leave in the first place,  and was more than a little upset to see him come back.  You know, the one with the stick up his rear-end whom everyone acknowledges but no one wants to be like.

God showed me that I was being the “good son.”  And I heard a voice say, “My lost children are coming home.  And you are angry.”

And I remembered the words of the story…

Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

And I started to cry.


Here, in Francis, my Papa was running out into the street to meet my brothers and sisters who were lost but now found.   He was killing the fatted calf and putting the finest robes on them.  He was giving them his ring.   And here I was, stuck doing the same damn thing I’ve always been doing and getting even less thanks for it.   People who left the Church, who hated the Church (and yes, hated and sometimes abused me for loving it), who wouldn’t give the Church a second glance were suddenly realizing that God loved them, that the Church welcomed them, and all I could do was feel bitter about it.  Because it was a fricking inconvenience to me.   I didn’t feel bitter because I don’t love them.   I do.  It wasn’t that I don’t want them to know how much they are loved and welcome.  I do.  But I was bitter because, to be perfectly honest, having to love them the way they are today makes my life harder than I would like it to be.   It isn’t enough for me to  just make statements and then sit in my rightness and be right.   All of a sudden, I have to really listen, to deal with the mess of their lives and put up with–no, actually respect– their “who do you think YOU are?” attitudes.    Yes, I loved them,  truly, but not enough.  Pope Francis was showing me that for all my brave words and self-congratulatory thoughts about my commitment to love my neighbor, I loved my comfort zone a little more than I loved my brother and sister who were coming home after a long time of suffering and loneliness.

And I felt ashamed.

Love and Truth

None of this is to say that the Church’s teachings on love, sex and marriage aren’t true.  And I think Pope Francis is showing us this too.   Likewise, none of this is to say that I have to pretend that the Church’s vision of life shouldn’t be upheld, taught, and proclaimed boldly.  But it is to say that preaching to an empty house, or limiting myself to too easy conversations with only the brothers and sisters who agree with me is useless.  I can still have those discussions I love so much, fight for those causes that matter so much, but first I have to get past the pride and joy I get from “being right.”  From being “the right kind of Catholic.”  From being “the good son.”  I have to show my brothers and sisters that I love them–first and always.  That I want them sitting next to me even though we don’t see eye-to-eye.   I have to be willing to learn from them as much as teach.  To acknowledge that they have things to offer me and that I am glad to be related to them even though we make each other uncomfortable sometimes.   If I can do that, if I can show them the love that Jesus has truly placed in my heart,  then I can have all the family arguments I want–and heck, maybe even win a few of them.  But if they don’t feel the love of Jesus radiating out of me, what’s the use in any of it?  Without love, I am no prophet.  I am just a clanging gong.  A noisy cymbal.

I think I’m starting to get it.  I think God, through Pope Francis, is reminding me that being right is fine, but I need to be even more committed to love because it is love that wins men’s hearts.  It goes back to what Pope Benedict said in Caritas in Veritatem, that taken together, love and truth prevent love from being reduced either to mere sentimentality or fideism.  God is reminding me that I still  have a way to go before I have mastered that art.

“Everything I Have is Yours…”

I guess I’m still processing all this, but in the last few days, I find myself a lot less disquieted by Pope Francis words and even the ways people are trying to twist them.  Let Papa bring my brothers and sisters home.  I love them and I will welcome them.  And I will be happy to continue the family arguments with them, because now that they are coming back home, I can.

Finally, to all my  brothers and sisters who are also my fellow “good sons and daughters” who feel as if their legs have been cut out from underneath them as the very people Pope Francis is running to meet accept his love but twist his words, perhaps we can all take a little comfort along with God’s conviction as we meditate on the Father’s words to the good son at the end of the story.

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

And more importantly,  perhaps we “good sons and daughters” in the family can yet find a place in our hearts for our  returning brothers and sisters and even happily join the party our Papa is throwing for them.

About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit

  • Myra D’Souza

    All you have said is true. This is what I too experienced when I read Papa Francis’ interview and I was convicted and shamed. God has given us a Pope for our time.

  • Matthew Vajnar

    Apt analogy if the Prodigal Son hadn’t repented (‘I’ve sinned against God and against you, I no longer deserve to be called your son’)…

    Hopefully I’ll see the wisdom of it all, right now it appears the new prodigal son is back for the 2nd half of the estate.

  • Deacon Sean Smith

    Unitl this post, I have never heard of you, Dr. Greg. But after reading this, I think I’ll be reading you more!

    I preached 2 weeks ago on the weekend of “The Prodigal Son”, before the Pope’s interview had been released. And the insights you gained by focusing on the “good son” are exactly what I tried to preach about. I spoke that each of us needs to be “evangelized”, to hear the good news, even if we’ve been doing all the right things for more or less the right reasons.

    Too often we think that if only everyone else would change, that things would be better. Your realization that every time mercy and love are spoken, they are spoken to each of us, that each of us are called to turn again to the Father.

    God bless you in your work and in your own journey to the Father!


    Deacon Sean

  • Jared B.

    …in his words, “I’m much more of a Pope Francis/Nancy Pelosi Catholic and you’re an old-school, Pope John Paul II Catholic.”
    And I heard a voice say, “My lost children are coming home. And you are angry.”

    There must be a connection here that I’m not seeing. How is having other people twist the pope’s words around mean that they’re “coming home”? We can’t judge others’ minds or hearts, but from all appearances it looks more like people are hardening their hearts—that is, people who were already opposed to what the Church teaches using the pope’s words as an opportunity to further validate themselves and their opposition. I can see how the intent may be much like the father in the prodigal son parable, but is that really the effect it’s having?

    Again, obviously we can’t perceive hearts & minds, but mountains of anecdotal evidence from us “conservative spin” Catholics keeps piling in that “making our jobs harder” is more than just an inconvenience to us. As Pat Archbold points out we and Pope Francis may be 100% on the same page that we need to be all about inviting people in. So if numerous people are making the observation that what they’re seeing on a daily basis is not more people accepting an invitation, but instead feeling more justified in having refused an invitation, then maybe we need to have a conversation, not about the good intentions behind the pope’s style and approach, but about their practical effects.

    • Adam Rasmussen

      I personally have had an atheist friend contact me and express how the pope is changing her opinion about Catholicism. I do not think that she is alone. While some may be confused (and you would have to *very* confused to think that he said abortion is OK), many are interested in a church that emphasizes, first and foremost, the mercy of Jesus Christ. This is the New Evangelization, and it’s going to lead to a big “messy” church.

      • Gordis85


    • James

      Funny, I found the twisting of Benedict XVI “made our jobs harder” far more than the twisting of Francis. How many people knew that “Panzer Cardinal” wrote encyclicals about Love and Charity and Faith? How many knew that “God’s Rottweiler” urged the faithful not to turn Christianity into “a series of prohibitions”?

      I have noticed people expressing interest in Catholicism who would not have before. I’ve noticed lapsed Catholics expressing an interest in returning home. Nor am I the only one.

  • kiwords

    That was beautiful. Thank you for sharing yourself in this.

  • mikki

    Excellent way to capture what a lot of us have been feeling. Your words, more eloquent than mine, express what I’ve been feeling as well. I’ve been wondering where God is leading us with this shepherd who has so little regard for what people think – or how they might interpret what he’s said. It’s both bothersome and refreshing. Christ didn’t give a rip … in fact, there are times I think he deliberately baited his audience just so he could teach them something. That may be how the Spirit is working here.

    I have known in my heart that we are very, very blessed with the three latest popes we’ve had. That image someone put together of Hope, Faith and Charity with the portraits of the three summed it up well. As did Pope Francis in an interview before he was elected: he stated several times when pushed for what he believed and how he would act, he simply said “I am Catholic.” In the end, that is what we are. We all have the warts and scars of life, none of us is perfect, and it’s easy to sit on my own throne and declare all others who disagree to be wrong and needing better direction. That may very well be true, but judgment passed without love … that’s not mine to give. I’ve been on the receiving end of judgments and accusations rendered without love which eviscerated the very person I am. I didn’t like it much. It took a lot of humility and soul searching to gather the courage to look in the mirror and find what was true in those accusations and do something about it. I’m a better person because of it, but it would have been a lot easier to handle with the love and support of the person who tore into me. I don’t want to do that to someone else.

    Thanks for putting yourself out there and sharing your feelings with us! You’re not alone!

  • Karen Hall

    The ENORMOUS difference is that the prodigal sun repented and acknowledged his sin.

    • Deacon Sean Smith

      The prodigal son repented about as much as my son did when I said, “tell your sister you’re sorry”. He went home because he was hungry, and found a father willing to take him back anyway. Remember, the Father ran out to meet him before the son said anything!

    • Adam Rasmussen

      Even before he repented, the prodigal father was looking for his lost son “from a long way off.” Pope Francis is our prodigal father, lavish in his mercy and unflagging in his practice of the New Evangelization.

    • radiofreerome

      Why don’t you acknowledge your sin in presuming the guilt of gays?

  • FrRamil E. Fajardo

    Thanks Dr. Greg! Great reflection, and spot on!

  • Paul Adams

    But are they returning? If the “spirit of Bergoglio” turns out to be anything like the “spirit of Vatican II,” we can expect the pews to empty rather than fill and the good work of his predecessors to unravel.

  • Eliza

    What bothers me about this is – I know the truth. My kids are learning the truth. Will they actually be able to know the truth as they grow, if the truth can be so easily twisted in order to bring the prodigals back into the church? And how about the others out there who are on the verge of knowing the truth, but are now being thrown for a loop and not sure what to believe because all of this twisted misinterpretation of what the Pope is saying?

  • A.J. Abalahin

    Thank you. Dr. Greg, for this heartfelt letter.

    All my life I have been between the “liberal” and “conservative” camps, so Pope Francis’ approach has fit me just fine. He just excommunicted a priest who publicly advocated the ordination of women and gay marriage, so I don’t think the “conservatives” have to worry…

    The secular media is just fooling themselves that Pope Francis represents a change in substance. One wonders whether the secular media has the intellectual wherewithal to be able to understood how completely in continuity Francis is with Church tradition and in particular with John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

    With JP II we had a born actor/communicator/crusader. With B XVI, we had/have (emeritus) a master scholar-teacher. With Francis, we have something different again, perhaps a true shepherd and father/grandfather figure (and a Jesuit intellectual to boot!). Each with his own charism suited to a particular moment in history. Trust the Holy Spirit and do not despair!

  • Elizabeth K.

    This is weird–because this is exactly the scripture that I’ve been thinking of, too. Interestingly enough, though, my pastor just gave an important twist to the story that I hadn’t thought about before, (perhaps he had recent events in mind). He noted in his sermon that though we can be hard on the older son, the older son isn’t completely wring, either. He read it at a very human level, as a story of siblings, and said that even as we rejoice that the lost have been found, the younger brother still owes apologies to the older brother. The older brother needs to think about what’s in his heart, and how he feels about his father. There’s healing that needs to happen–the older brother isn’t just required to “suck it up” and move on–instead, we’re invited to think about what might happen next in the story. How can the sons be reconciled? Certainly one aspect would be that the younger son also learn to appreciate what the older son has done, even as the older son acknowledges that sometimes he loses sight of why he does what he does.

  • Marissa Nichols

    My sin has always been that of the older son…Here’s the thing:we are never told which son is the prodigal one in the story, and to my mind, that means that both are, just in two very different ways. Let’s all pray for each other that we might finally understand that the Father comes to meet us all.

  • ME

    This is by far one of the very best articles I’ve seen written on the Pope Francis interview. Thank you for acknowledging in a constructive way the good that Pope Francis is doing, in a different strategy than has been done for the last while.

  • janen7

    This is weird #2. Let me tell you how it happened with me. I have had very similar reactions. I read the America interview and when I read the part about abortion I got angry. “Lord! I’m really glad the gay couple down the street feel more comfortable in the Church. How about me? I have fought abortion for 43 years and I feel LESS comfortable!” Then it hit me. Who I sounded like. The older son. I get exactly what you’re saying because nothing could have changed my paradigms so drastically or suddenly. It’s love and grace and mercy. He’s not changing truth. He’s leading with the virtue without which we are all clashing cymbals. He’s not dealing so much with abortion as he is the abortionist and the suffering mom. Jesus didn’t eat with the sinners to justify their sins but to love them in spite of them so they would be moved to repentance out of love. 

  • Jennifer Roback Morse Phd

    Dr Greg, Dr J here. I came to the same conclusion, more or less, as you. Pope Francis is a challenge to ALL of us. I expressed myself in a somewhat different way, which I hope people will be able to receive: Hope you enjoy it.

    • radiofreerome

      Jennifer, if I were you I’d be careful about comparing people you don’t know to prostitutes.

    • Gordis85

      I read it and it was wonderful! Thank you for sharing the link. ^^

  • Holly

    Fantastic article, Greg. Thank you

  • Adam Rasmussen

    This is a great post. I really appreciate it. A liberal religion commentator (Mark Silk) wrote a few days ago that he was not “holding my breath” waiting for conservative Catholics to thank the pope for his “paternal correction” of their overemphasis upon abortion, etc. Well, Silk was wrong! While many are hardening their hearts against Francis, some, like you, are heeding his beautiful words. Thank you!

    • Gordis85

      No matter the clamor…the interview will bear much fruit to those who will but open their hearts, pray, and reflect. Let’s give our Holy Father the benefit of doubt much like Dr. Greg and many others here have done.

      It is uplifting and gladdens the heart to read such honesty. God bless you all!

  • Beth

    Thank you so very much–especially for the “Convicted” part. Sharing this.

  • Allison Grace

    Good morning, Dr.; I am the prodigal’s older brother, too. Thank you for writing!

  • Frank

    I’m one of the Catholics you’d have been grudgingly tolerating if you tried to counsel me, Greg. I have for all practical purposes left the Church since a particularly disastrous experience as a student at FUS a few years ago. To put it briefly, it was an experience of betrayal and rejection by certain bureaucratic authorities in that school. In the light of this experience, and the revelations about JPII’s protection of Marcial Maciel (among other scandals), I found myself coming to the conclusion that the self-consciously orthodox Catholicism I had embraced was a structure designed to encourage intolerance, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness.

    There are still times I think I’m wrong, though. Reading the Pope’s interview last weekend gave me hope for the first time in many years that I might be.

    It also gives me, rather bitterly, some small hope to see you confessing to a degree of hard-heartedness in your initial response to Pope Francis. If words like these can be written even by someone who’s a fixture at Steubenville, maybe there’s hope for the folks there. Maybe they can still be turned into human beings. Maybe.

  • Gordis85

    After reflecting upon our Holy Father’s interview, I too came to realize the beautiful parable of the Prodigal Son. I could see it in his words, in his actions and I could see the “elder brother, the “good” son” in the rest of us. All of this affirmed my faith in our Lord Christ Jesus that he is at work here, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the person of Pope Francis. I am sure he too, is being converted the same as those of us who are open to the call of conversion by faithfully taking up our Cross and following along the path of Calvary.

    He knows to respond to that call is not easy but like our Savior, we will “endure the cross for the sake of the glory that lies before us.”

    Your story is a wonderful one and one I relate to so well. Your honesty is a blessing…let it shine so that others who continue to struggle with our Holy Father’s words may find the courage to see them as he intended to see them and not as the media or personal bias would have them be seen.

  • James

    I understand your frustrations with the media spin, but in unpacking Francis’s interview, I believe there is a lot there that will make your job easier in the long run.

    The popular conception of Catholic teachings on sexuality is that they are all a series of rules. “Thou shalt not—or else.” A lot of very stale apologetics surrounding these rules is running around many Catholic circles—”bankrupt Thomism”, if you will.

    But old natural law arguments convince no one who isn’t already convinced. And Christianity, is far more than a “series of prohibitions”, as Benedict XVI said. Nor can we boil down the intricacies of intimate relationships into a bunch of rules. (This is a problem in some conservative Catholic circles: They’ve been taught all the rules, but not how to deal with the messy realities of marriage.) Instead, it is only in seeing the “big picture” of God’s love for us and how marriage reflects that love that the rules can even begin to make sense.

  • Adam Frey

    Dr. Greg, it looks like you and I had the same thoughts at the same time. I’m posting the following link here just to get this out in the open so that nobody thinks I ripped you off (or vice-versa)–we both take a different tone but reach the same conclusion. Good stuff on your end!

  • Vonda Zimmerman

    I was highly disturbed by the first reading I had–but then it was an article without a link to the Actual article! The Actual article much better. As a convert, I came into the Church with a MILITANT attitude to know and find the truth. If those coming ‘back’ do not have that same attitude, and only believe all the fake stories and surmising that has been written about it (My paper was filled with hopes for women and married priests, gay marriages being performed etc and not a word about Jesus or faith) they will be sorely disappointed. If they come ‘back’ because the Holy Spirit is guiding them and they are really opening themselves up–wonderful beyond words–I know the joy that awaits them. If not, there will be a lot of damage happening to these people and more anger than ever as they find out that it really is true–the Church is truth and expects them to avail themselves of it. My son and I have been discussing this and we discussed the prodigal son aspect. I wonder why the older son felt so alienated. This father seems to be loving and warm and kind and merciful, yet he spends everyday with the older son and the older doesn’t know how his father leans on him ? That everything he has is his? Either the older son is really crazy or maybe there is something lacking here–as a mom –I have the kids that are ‘good’ and kids that have had issues…I am ever mindful of the ‘good’ one I leave behind in order to rescue the ‘lost’ one and I communicate that so they do not feel deserted. That can cause real damage. I think the article didn’t display that very well…

    All that said–Our new Holy Father has charmed me! I love him! Jehovah Witness’s that came to my door are using it as a talking point! They thought they could get me to put him down …when I responded that I really loved him they backed off :) We do need to keep in my mind –I read a comment recently that in other countries people are being rejected by those in the Church. Any ‘public’ sinner is not allowed at Mass or their child baptized etc. A public sinner as in the case of an unwed mother. The unwed father is fine…the mother and her child not so much. I was reminded to keep in mind that he is everyone’s Holy Father and he may not really be speaking to American Catholic’s, but a millions of others that are currently being shunned the way the Church in America used to shun unwed mother’s etc. and it still does happen where folks are rude and unwelcoming.

    I think it is an exciting time and this Pope will make it more interesting than ever :)

  • Carrie

    When I first started reading this post I started thinking how one advantage to Pope Francis’ approach is it does appeal to those who normally disagree with church teachings. So I thought that may be very helpful because people who normally won’t listen to church teachings may now start to listen a little bit and be curious. Perhaps Pope Francis’ gift to reach the lost sheep will be a huge benefit. I was impressed with how humble you were in this post as you described your struggle. I was impressed. Then by the end of the post I realized that in my own way I do the same thing you have been doing. I see myself as “the good Catholic” or the one doing it the “right way”. As a result I am seen as someone who judges at times and then I lose any chance of evangelizing. Very interesting post and helpful to all of us who need to improve in this area.