Nine months after the momentous papal election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Vicar of Christ on earth, Supreme Pontiff and Bishop of Rome, many in the world stand in awe at how this 77-year-old man has captivated humanity in such a short period of time. His free gestures, his connection with people, especially those who are broken, sick, poor, destitute and living on the fringes of society have made the world stop and listen.
Working in the business of media in my role as head of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Television Network, many of my more cynical colleagues in the “secular” world have teased me about the Pope. They say: “You folks did it well! You must have paid a fortune to fix the brand, market the product and get your message out! It must have cost you a fortune!”
I smile and tell them that it cost us nothing. No one could have ever planned such a thing and a result as what we have witnessed since that cold, rainy, March night when Pope Francis made his debut on the world stage. If ever I believed in the Holy Spirit, it was during that conclave and on that night … and I saw it all up close as I was working in the Holy See Press Office a the Vatican throughout the Papal transition. This was God’s doing and the Holy Spirit’s action and not ours.
The heart and soul, the spirituality of Jorge Mario Bergoglio is about human faces: the face of Christ, of Joseph and Mary, of Saints Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola and Peter Faber. And the Pope sees the face of God in the face of the poor, the weak, the broken, the elderly and helpless children. Over the past nine months, his words both attract and perplex. They are an unvarnished call for the church and every Christian to undergo reform by standing under the gaze of Christ. In the transforming light of that face, everything else follows.
Pope Francis is a world leader preaching a global transformation, a new stimulus to international activity on behalf of the poor, inspired by something more than mere goodwill, or, worse, promises which all too often have not been kept. He acknowledges a “globalization of indifference” that has swept over the world and made us turn our backs to those most in need. He disarmingly makes us deeply uncomfortable in a way that allows us to recognize and confront the alienation from our own humanity that occurs when we seek happiness in objects rather than in relationship with God and others.
Pope Francis rejects an elitist church. He also rejects the reduction of Catholicism to hot-topic moral issues. He does not want to reduce the church to discussions of abortion, gay marriage, contraception and homosexuality. In his comments, he makes a distinction between dogmatic and moral teachings, reminding us that they do not hold the same weight. With Pope Francis, the church must re-enter public discourse with a full-throated defense of the common good that rises above bitter partisan divisions.
To be a church for the poor, the Church must elevate the issue of poverty to the very top of its political agenda, establishing poverty alongside abortion as the pre-eminent moral issues the Catholic community pursues at this moment in our national histories. Each of those issues, poverty and abortion, constitute an assault on the very core of the dignity of the human person.
Pope Francis sees and understands the Church to be a reconciler and a house of reconciliation. For him, faith enters the church through the heart of the poor, not through the heads of intellectuals. “Only the beauty of God can attract.” He reawakens in us a desire to call strangers neighbours in order to make known his beauty.
He wants the Church to speak a simple message. “At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people” he says. The Church must present Jesus as the compassion of God.
“We need a church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a church capable of meeting people on their way. We need a church capable of entering into their conversation.”
In a recent interview with Italy’s La Stampa newspaper, Pope Francis spoke about the meaning of Christmas. He said:
“God never gives someone a gift they are not capable of receiving. If he gives us the gift of Christmas, it is because we all have the ability to understand and receive it. All of us from the holiest of saints to the greatest of sinners; from the purest to the most corrupt among us. Even a corrupt person has this ability …”
He continued: “Christmas in this time of conflicts is a call from God who gives us this gift. Do we want to receive Him or do we prefer other gifts? In a world afflicted by war, this Christmas makes me think of God’s patience. The Bible clearly shows that God’s main virtue is that He is love. He waits for us; he never tires of waiting for us. He gives us the gift and then waits for us. This happens in the life of each and every one of us. There are those who ignore him. But God is patient and the peace and serenity of Christmas Eve is a reflection of God’s patience toward us.”
We waited patiently for you, Pope Francis. On March 13 this past year, you were an early Christmas gift to the Church and the world. Thanks for making Christmas a daily occurrence for us all.