It really is quite wonderful, what we’re hearing and seeing from Rome. The plain shoes. The plain watch. The slightly galumphy look as he does his walkabouts. The reason he took his name: “How I wish for a poor church, and for a church for the poor.” The report I received of his taking the employee elevator in the Vatican, not the papal one— “Your Holiness!” exclaimed a surprised Swiss Guard. His kissing of the hands of his “brother cardinals” after they would attempt to kiss his ring. The sweetness of his plunging into the crowds. His stopping the jeep Tuesday morning when he was riding around St. Peter’s Square: He saw a disabled man being held by a friend, and stopped to show affection and gratitude. The surprise walkabout Sunday at church. The surprise phone call he made to thousands of Argentines who held an all-night prayer vigil for him Monday in Buenos Aires: “Thank you for praying, for your prayers, which I need a lot.”
All this can be called mere symbolism but it’s good symbolism, and good Francis knows it is needed.
And some things are more than that. Here is the end of his extraordinary blessing, on the third day of his papacy, to the 5,000 journalists who had converged on Rome. When he was to give his apostolic blessing he made no gestures, no pleasing moves, and simply said, in Italian, “I cordially impart to all of you my blessing.” Then, in Spanish: “I told you I was cordially imparting my blessing. Since many of you are not members of the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I cordially give this blessing silently, to each of you, respecting the conscience of each but in the knowledge that each of you is a child of God. May God bless you!” Then he left.
That declared respect for the consciences of others, the reluctance to assume or impose—that meant something.
So did the homily he gave at his installation mass, in which he used the word “protect” repeatedly. Power is service, service is protection; a new bishop of Rome must be inspired by the “lowly, concrete and faithful service” of St. Joseph. “He must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important,” including “the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.” “We must not be afraid of goodness, or even tenderness.”
In a way this sounds standard—any pope might say it. But Francis’s language is marked by a particular tenderness—even by a repetition of that word. It made me think of Mother Teresa. I have a pamphlet she thrust in my hand 28 years ago, the day I met her. It contains a poem she had written. “Jesus is the unwanted—to be wanted. . . . Jesus is the Beggar—to give him a smile. Jesus is the Drunkard—to listen to him. Jesus is the Mental—to protect him . . .”
That in turn reminded me of Francis’s first Angelus as pope, on Sunday. He spoke to those massed in St. Peter’s Square of how mercy makes life sweeter. “A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just.” We should never despair of God’s mercy. “The Lord never tires of forgiving. . . . It is we who tire of asking forgiveness!”
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I am thinking of John Paul II as the pope of freedom, in both the spiritual and the political senses. He went home to Poland and told the Soviet Union that it could not stop God and could not hold the people from him. And of course freedom in the deeper, more crucial sense of finding one’s truest freedom only in belief in God. He liked to quote St. Augustine: “To the extent to which we serve God we are free, while to the extent we follow . . . sin, we are still slaves.”
I am thinking of Benedict XVI as the pope of reason and intellect in a world abandoning both for sensation, stimulation and sentiment. I read last night in John Thavis’s “The Vatican Diaries” of Benedict’s informing a crowd at a World Youth Day mass that Holy Communion can be compared to nuclear fission—the Eucharist is an “intimate explosion” that sets off a series of transformations. Benedict was an intellectual and somewhat abstract: It was hard for him to be fully heard, fully understood.
But Francis in these first days—this pope seems to me the pope of sweetness, not of a shallow or sentimental kind but some deep sweetness that has to do with words like tenderness, and mercy, and protection.
The church the past 35 years in the post-Christian West has attempted to reimpose the urgency of its presence, meaning and belief, and to present those things fully to the rising nations.
John Paul and Benedict were bringers, givers, teachers. But Francis seems like a summoner, an inviter. And this seems just right for the world right now.
Anyway, I am finding it impossible not to be interested in what he is doing, and what he will become.
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A smart piece by John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter on the implications of and impediments to Francis’s desires for a church of the poor.
Thomas Reese on the pope and celibacy.
Andrea Tornielli of Vatican Insider on potential reform of the Curia.
Jody Bottum in the Weekly Standard on the difficulties of trying to fit Francis into prevailing political categories: “A leftist who denounces the state power and cultural changes demanded by the left. A reactionary who despises the accumulation of wealth and the libertarian freedoms praised by the right. No attempt to impose liberal and conservative definitions on him will succeed.”