One aspect of fallen human nature is that we, in a weirdly paradoxical way, tend to become precisely what it is we do not like. Saint Paul decried this tendency in himself, “I do not understand myself; all that I hate I am become” (Romans 7:15).
In attempting to walk with people who still processing our new pope and trying to understand him, or trying to understand themselves and what matters within the depths, I’ve had a lot of time to ponder that line of scripture. It is so easy for those who “get” Francis, to blow off those who do not, and I admit that several times over the past few days I have had to take a deep breath and think, “what does Jesus want, what would Francis say” before taking on someone who is sneering about the Holy Father and accusing him of heresy and whatnot — or at the very least of not giving appropriate voice to their concerns, or ranking evils to their liking. When people seem near hysterics, my instinct is sometimes to haul out Vulgar Auntie Lillie and a fire hose and water them down until the screaming stops, but then I think, well…if that’s the best I can do, then let me work on myself, first.
I’m realizing it’s not enough to “get” Pope Francis. We have to internalize his lessons and actually convert ourselves — the Benedictine “conversio” or “constant turning” that Judith Valente writes of in Atchison Blue — or we are still the sounding gongs we’ve always been.
Pope Benedict spoke to my heart in one way — and I am so grateful for the Catechesis he delivered, that helped to strengthen and deepen my faith. Francis hits it in another — a way that convicts, so I know my guilt and failings. He has re-awoken a part of my conscience that has lain too-long dormant. When he warned us against the “dark joy of gossip” for instance, his vivid words got to the heart of why we can’t allow ourselves to enter into it. The sense of superiority, and the inevitable diminishment of other human beings that it leads to, is part-and-parcel with gossip and renders it a very dark joy, indeed — it leads us away from the light.
My point is that its no good “getting” Francis if all we derive of it is a satisfaction of the intellect, a sense of papal validation, and that dreadful by-product of hipness that such validation confers. If we have previously decried smug triumphalism, it will sting when we look into the mirror and find ourselves become smug triumphalists. And all that I hate I am become.
Put more bluntly: we who “get” Francis, it is worth asking ourselves the question: are you loving Francis because of what you are learning from him, or simply because you perceive him to be “sticking it to” people you haven’t liked much for the past decade or so? A little of both?
Francis is talking love, and he wants us to grow in it; and growth takes energy. He is urging us to walk together toward Christ. So, if we see a brother or a sister having trouble with the new pavement under their feet, let’s walk beside them, with a bit of patience and encouragement: One man helps another, one says to the other, “Keep on!” (Isaiah 40:6).
If all we who “get” Francis can do is jeeringly judge those who are still processing, then what possible help can we be to the man, or to the Holy Spirit who guides him? Or to the church?
Let’s urge “Keep on!” Let’s be the revelation we long to see. Let’s be the mercy we yearn for.