Pope Francis has ruffled some traditionalist feathers since ascending to the papacy, most notably as a result of his decision to live simply in the Vatican guesthouse instead of the papal residence, and – more dramatically – his decision to wash the feet of two women, one of whom was a Serbian Muslim, on Holy Thursday (the ritual is traditionally reserved for men commemorating Jesus’s decision to choose twelve male disciples). In this traditionalist’s mind, though, there is no doubt: Francis is exactly the pope the Church and the world need now more than ever.
I can tell, on a personal level, just by noting the individuals who all of a sudden find themselves drawn to this pope’s warmth and humility. My parents, who immigrated to the United States from Poland in the 1980s, and who felt distant from former Pope Benedict and even in some ways from our native John Paul II, are constantly asking what Francis is up to. My evangelical brothers and sisters, who like to rib me about rum and Romanism and are wary of statues and the rosary, appreciate the pope’s witness to our shared encounter with Christ. Many of my high school and college friends, a good number of them humanists or agnostics, told me President Obama spoke for them when he reacted in the following way to the election of Francis: “As a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us, he carries forth the message of love and compassion that has inspired the world for more than 2,000 years – that in each other we see the face of God.” In a world rife with division, Francis asks us to reconcile and offers us the hope we need to do so.
In his last general audience, Benedict shared with the faithful in St. Peter’s Square his feeling that there were times times during his pontificate when “the Lord seemed to sleep.” Somehow, with Francis, there is the intangible sense that God is alive and alert and has looked upon us with favor. The Church still needs to put the tragedy of pedophilia behind it. Vatican finances need to be cleaned up and leaks plugged. Politics in the Curia need to be tamed. But with Francis there is the hope that a pastoral approach, a heartfelt optimism that takes things one day at a time, will bring renewal.
The world may end; disasters and catastrophes may befall us; crises, defaults, and insolvencies may await. Before Francis, I was unsettled and expected all that. Now, with Francis, I realize that these things may happen, of course, but I see no need to think about them. Francis represents, for me, in this first impression, the reliability of the ancient ways, the solidity of God’s path, and the assurance that we should persevere in what we always thought we should.
The reliability of the ancient ways is right. When Francis speaks of the poor and most vulnerable among us, he speaks also of the unborn. When he speaks of love, his understanding extends to the unique love of Christ for the struggler making his or her way through programs such as Courage, Exodus, or Jonah. Want to make the case that Francis, alongside his record of social justice and speaking up on behalf of the environment, is out to turn the clock back for women? Or that he seeks to push homosexuals back into the closet? The argument is destined to fail before it even gets off the ground, and the reason is not so much a logical counter-argument as it is Francis’s life as a whole, which has consisted in living out loud the truth that grace is to be found in the pages of the Summa, but also in the slums, the hospitals, the prisons and wherever else the brokenness of the world screams out for God’s mercy. The peace of Francis is knowing that a lived Catholic faith is possible.
That knowledge is good not just for the Church. It is good for the world, which needs faith if lasting peace and reconciliation are ever to become a reality. Happy Easter, and Viva il Papa!