After a Year with Pope Francis

After a Year with Pope Francis December 18, 2013

Time, The Advocate, and The New Yorker are just the latest publications to find Pope Francis front-page worthy news and the symbol of a spiritual year in review.  Meanwhile, I’ve gotten an email from a friend who wants a recommendation for a Pope Francis book for a relative who is unexpectedly excited about Catholicism again, and I see non-Catholic friends sharing interview excerpts and photos, talking about the first pope they’ve liked.

And, the whole time, I’ve felt a little odd about not being more swept off my feet.  Maybe it’s the way that each interview comes with a week or two of more arguing, confusing translations, out-of-context quotes, and arguing.  I kept waving off my friends’ questions about Evangelium Gaudii since I hadn’t read the proclamation and was suspicious of brief reporting on long documents.

There’s a palpable sense of urgency when people talk about Pope Francis’s latest comment or act of mercy, and I think that’s the source of my distance.  For the most part, the things Pope Francis does that make news aren’t new.  (For example, when he said it was entirely possible that atheists who follow their consciences go to heaven, that was exactly in line with Catholic orthodoxy – we like to say we know where the Church is, but not where it isn’t.  God can give grace anywhere, but we stick by the sources of grace we can recognize: the Sacraments).

The good works the Pope does aren’t in any way dependent on his being Pope.  Any of us can offer compassion to the sick, feed the poor (with companionship as well as food), and keep offering all this help with a human face.  Francis may be a new wineskin, but what people seem to be desperately imbibing is far from new wine.

And, I start to wonder, what kind of Christian am I that my friends find Pope Francis’s kindness and compassion so sui generis and startling?  We shouldn’t have to rely on the witness of the Pope to communicate the beauty and love of Christianity, but it seems like for many people, Catholic and not, he sounds like a voice crying out in the wilderness.

As an abstract, systematizing thinker, I’m more likely to talk about Catholicism in the context of epistemology or theology.  I like to poke at abstruse corners of the faith and get excited about small connections between ideas.  But academic, theoretical joy isn’t what people are responding to when they turn their eyes to Pope Francis.  Although his remarks are erudite, he keeps bringing his conversations back to the small-scale, urgent level of human lives.

When I sometimes do good or struggle to mend the evil I’ve done, I’m less likely to talk about how it relates to my religion.  Maybe because I’m in the middle of comforting a friend and I don’t want to interrupt his troubles to explain the undercurrents of why and how I’m trying to help or maybe I’ve only barely got a grip on my anger and pride, and it seems too risky to try to talk about my faith while I’m in such a mood.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but, in the coming year, I want to be able to respond the hunger that Pope Francis has exposed and to make my Christianity a little less private and picayune in my day to day life.  I’d like for people to be able to look at my life and think, “If that’s what Christianity does, I’d like to know more.”  Or, at least, to think, “If Christianity is what makes Leah acknowledge those acts as faults and try (with middling success) to mend them, I’d like to know more.”

It’s awfully sobering to know that the basic decency of Pope Francis is a shock to the people I ostensibly love.

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