From the earliest time of Christianity the pope, a term derived from the Greek word for “father,” was regarded with great love and reverence by the faithful. The Pope is the Vicar of Christ and successor of Peter. As we think back at the visit of Pope Francis to the U.S. and consider in general his ministry, we are filled with gratitude to God and reverence for the pope.
A recent interview for America Magazine sadly called the pope “a disruptor” in what R. R. Reno described as Jesuit extremism. The term “disruptor” in Reno’s intention is probably not derogatory – and could be applied to Jesus Christ and his disciples by his adversaries – but it is hardly the way one would call one’s father, and even less in public when that father happens to be the one appointed by God to lead his Church. (Many Jesuits would also object to being called extremists because of their words or gestures and are precisely doing what Reno thinks others do: ‘running, in a good sense, the day-to-day life of the Church.’
The pope has spoken with wisdom and a big heart to the people of America, first in Cuba and next in the U.S., and to the people of the world represented in the Assembly of the United Nations. He is worthy of our admiration, love and obedience. Before considering briefly what he said to the people of the US it is worth pointing out the attitude of a remarkable 19th century Englishman, Blessed John Henry Newman, upon Pius IX’s declaration of the dogma of Papal Infallibility. Newman had reason to think that the declaration would be made at an inopportune moment in England, only two decades after restoration of the Catholic hierarchy. Characteristically he did not voice his opposition to the Holy Father’s decision in public, and although he voiced his opinion to friends in private letters, in public he showed a refined respect and support.
Some orthodox Catholics think that the pope should have spoken forcefully in defense of some Catholic doctrines. The pope chose instead to preach on basic truths about Jesus Christ, charity, world peace and human rights, especially life and religious freedom.
Pope Francis has touched every American, moving them to examine their consciences. God spoke to us through the pope. Each person was addressed – the believer, the unbeliever. In Philadelphia he recounted the story of how, when the wealthy heiress Catherine Drexel asked Pius XII about the missions, he replied: “And how about you?” – words which changed her life. In the wake of the pope’s visit to our country we need to hear these same words addressed to ourselves: “What about you?” If we try to be open and to listen to God in prayer he will speak individually to us.
David Brooks said in an interview on PBS that he thought the pope’s visit would have a lasting effect on the lives of many people, including Jews and other Christians. I wish here to mention some of the ideas that he addressed to different groups.
To US leaders: Work together for the common good, respecting the dignity of every human being at every stage of his life; respect the tradition of religious freedom exemplified by the Quakers; and respect the freedom and dignity of every human being following the example of Abraham Lincoln.
To bishops: Be spiritual fathers to your flock, and be close to your priests.
To world leaders: Work for peace in the world, seeing in each war the faces of suffering human beings; work for an integral human ecology that includes the care of our common hope, and care for each human being. He said: “The common home of all men and women must continue to rise on the foundations of a right understanding of universal fraternity and respect for the sacredness of every human life, of every man and every woman, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned, those considered disposable because they are only considered as part of a statistic. This common home of all men and women must also be built on the understanding of a certain sacredness of created nature.”
To priests, religious and laity: Go out like St. Junipero Serra and evangelize, teaching like St. John Neumann and generously responding to God’s call, as did St. Catherine Drexel.
To relatives and friends of victims of the attacks on 9/11: “This place of death became a place of life too, a place of saved lives, a hymn to the triumph of life over the prophets of destruction and death, to goodness over evil, to reconciliation and unity over hatred and division.”
To children and youth: Value friendships and learn from their parents and grandparents; dream and work to carry out those dreams.
To immigrants: Recognize that they have many gifts to share; religion is at the basis of culture and therefore religious freedom must be safeguarded if a nation is to flourish.
To prison inmates: Begin anew in their lives and do not consider themselves excluded from the human family.
To families: Appreciate that God became incarnate in a family; God placed his love, goodness, truth and beauty in the human family.
The message of the Holy Father was not new, but it was delivered with a new strength. David Brooks noted that, in fact, it was the message of two thousand years. Pope Francis preached the Gospel and the teaching contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He preached about God’s love in creation and the incarnation, forgiveness, respect and love for others, and reaching out to the poor, the sick, and others who are excluded.
The following words to the U.N. Assembly, for example, recall similar words of Gaudium et Spes: “Our world demands of all government leaders a will which is effective, practical and constant, concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment and thus putting an end as quickly as possible to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion, with its baneful consequences: human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labor, including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism and international organized crime.”
The pope’s gestures were very powerful and significant. They were numerous, and each person who saw or touched him has a story to tell. The gestures that were visible to larger groups were: washing the feet of homeless persons, visiting the Little Sisters of the Poor, and greeting children along his path. Other gestures we can only imagine, such as his time with victims of sexual abuse. And as impressive as all these gestures were, these too were not new. Many of us know of similar ones by the popes of the 20th century. Yet the latter does not take way from their significance. All felt the closeness of God, his warmth. We can truly say that Christ was walking in the streets of Washington, New York and Philadelphia.
Some Catholics, however, are dissatisfied because the pope did not speak on many issues that they considered important. They wish he had spoken more clearly about the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. They compare him to the two previous popes. These Catholics are like the Pharisees who were scandalized and did not recognize the Messiah when he came – they were unwilling to accept Jesus on his own terms. They were not open to anything other than what they expected to see and hear. Today some Catholics see the pope and are scandalized, questioning his ministry. Of course, the pope is not God but Christ’s Vicar, and he calls us to open our minds and hearts to action of the Holy Spirit in his Church.
God works in different ways and through different instruments. Every successor of Peter has a different cultural and educational background. A few stand out not only for their holiness but for their convincing arguments and extensive works, such as Pope John Paul II, but we must be careful not to expect this from successive popes. We must also concede that the Holy Spirit places in the heart of each pope points of doctrine or the spiritual life that need to be emphasized. Pope Francis has seen the need to emphasize the works of mercy and the evangelization of those who are at the margins of Christian life. In doing this he does not discard or minimize the Church’s teaching.
St. Josemaría Escrivá taught people to love the pope, whoever he was, and to pray and support him. He often reminded them of St. Catherine’s description of the pope as il dolce Cristo in terra (the sweet Christ on earth).
The pope does not need to be a theologian to exercise the chair of Peter and he does not choose to speak as a theologian. He wishes to proclaim the Gospel and explain its passages with a simple, straightforward exposition of the Gospel.
At the same time he knows how to draw good from people, building on their heritage. To the congressmen he said: “I would like to mention four of these Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. This year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that “this nation, under God, (might) have a new birth of freedom.” Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.” As has been pointed out by Michael Cook in MercatorNet, Pope Francis has a different manner of reaching people: “he is committed to a different kind of rhetoric. It’s not overly simplistic to say that he is trying to win souls, not arguments.”
Repeatedly, both through his example and his words Pope Francis urges us to live with the joy of the Gospel. The faithful, when confronted with a culture of death, can fail to respond with the necessary mercy and joy – and even find fault with the pope for doing so.
At Madison Square Garden, representative of our civic life, Pope Francis commented on the prophet Isaiah’s words: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” He spoke of Christ who walks through our cities, and amid the smog gives light. He is the Light of the World and we are called to be his witnesses.
Let us take to heart these words of Pope Francis, and, reflecting on the week he spent in the US, consider what changes God wants for our life and how we will respond to that calling.
As Blessed Newman reminds us the pope can err as an individual person but not as pope. The pope rarely speaks ex cathedra in union with the bishops of the Church, using the charism of infallibility. However even when he does not we must listen to him with reverence and filial respect and love. With the start of the synod for families let us increase our prayer for him and all the bishops participating in the synod.
 “Do not forget the parable of the tares–of the net–and that’ many are called, few chosen.’ Of course there is, and has ever been, an abundance of evil–and that in Popes as well as in others; and Popes have made great mistakes–and Popes have said and done heretical things– though they were not heretics, and did not say and do them as Popes. Pope Liberius, for instance, when he gave up St Athanasius, did it under constraint, when he wished to get back from exile, and was in the hands of the Arians. This was not an act of his as Pope, ex Cathedra, but as an individual, and an
erring one. Now the very reason I became a Catholic was because the present Roman
Catholic Church is the only Church which is like, and it is very like, the primitive Church, the Church of St Athanasius–I have said this in print?” John Henry Newman, Letter to Mrs. Helbert, Letters and Diaries Vol XXIV, August 30, 1869.