What Are We To Make of Pope Francis?

We are so used to schtick, spin and PR in this world that we hardly want to believe anything anymore. Or believe in anyone.

“What’s your game, and what are you trying to sell?” is our default stance, aided and abetted by a media inordinately pleased with itself in finding contradiction upon contradiction in every human being and endeavor. And truth to tell, that job is easy, because we are all as shot-through with contradiction as clay pigeons on a rifle range. Always have been.

All of which begets jaundice and jadedness as our modern coins of the realm, and everything that would attempt to circumvent them by a measure of sincerity or goodwill we either ignore, shout down, or almost worst of all, treat with an “Isn’t that precious?” irony that becomes virtually indistinguishable from cynicism, the last refuge of the fallen idealist.

So within that tableau of dialogue-stoppers and despair, what are we to make of Pope Francis?

He of the quiet tones, the inner conviction stripped bare of any apparent rancor, a man who would seemingly have preferred to arrive in Washington the other day barefoot on a donkey while throwing garlands on the assembled masses rather than fly into Dulles Airport and be whisked away in a limousine.

 

The sniping, the harshness, the finger-wagging judgement, the casting of aspersions, the demonizing, the out-and-out hatred—enough already, says the Pope, in every word and gesture of his pontificate.

He is a religious man, of course. He subscribes to, leads and serves an organized religion that has wielded tremendous power in the world over the past thousand years or so—not all of it, as he has freely and refreshingly admitted, for the good. He tirelessly promotes the core values of that religion and would no doubt be glad if every last person on the planet finally gave up their resistance and signed on to become Roman Catholic in a mass conversion the likes of which the world has never seen.

In that sense, he is an unapologetic, unwavering believer in a tradition that has been slowly, inexorably eroding into a Sea of Secularism since about the time of the Enlightenment.

But his fidelity to that tradition is about where comparison to any other prominent religious figure of our era ends. And in an ironic way, it only ends because of his fierce fidelity to the absolute core of that tradition, to his boring down to its roots and essentials in the actual life and times of its seminal figure in Jesus.

Whatever the transgressions and misapplications of the tradition that has grown under his name, Jesus of Nazareth presents what in the end is a simple set of edicts. And what should not be remarkable about Pope Francis but is, because so few other religious figures of our era exemplify it as he does, is that he takes Jesus’s edicts seriously and has decided to promulgate them wherever he goes, and to whomever he is speaking.

 

 

And not one stitch of it reflects hostility, or unsparing judgement, or righteous moralizing, or support for a “prosperity gospel,” or any implication whatsoever that the poor and dispossessed are simply lazy and need to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Yes, he wants to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” but even within that, he recognizes that we are all afflicted in our own way, and all of us are in need of mercy—rich and poor, religious and secular, saint and sinner alike. Very much including himself. (“Pray for me,” he whispered in House Speaker John Boehner’s ear on Thursday. “Who am I to pray for him?” Boehner asked, rhetorically. “But I did.”)

Francis’s call is for humility in the face of our own—everyone’s—fallenness. For tenderness and mercy and ongoing generosity from everyone, and not just financially. All of us could benefit from being granted the benefit of the doubt from our fellow human beings a whole lot more than we are. And granting it to them in turn.

The sniping, the harshness, the finger-wagging judgement, the casting of aspersions, the demonizing, the out-and-out hatred—enough already, says the Pope, in every word and gesture of his pontificate.

He is a man who simply refuses to cast stones, or raise his voice.

Yes, Jesus, his hero, his guiding star, had a harsh word or two to say to the moneychangers, and he pointedly indicated both the burden and responsibility that comes with wealth. But that is secondary to the urgency of his call for mercy and compassion and their alpha and omega: love.

That is where Francis has cast his lot. Love and mercy supersede—by no small measure—every strain of harshness and rancor that religion would bring to bear on us. That is, in the end, Francis’s religion, and the fact that he practices it with such simple sincerity and devotion seems to have rocked the entire world back on its heels.

This is not what religion is supposed to be, is it? But of course it is.

What else was it supposed to be?

**

Otis Redding romanticizes the hell right out of this song (landing us in heavenly bliss!), but its core advice is a fine default stance toward life, I think, and is a perfect reflection of Pope Francis. Tragically, this turned out to be Redding’s final concert the night before the plane crash that killed him and the Bar-Kays who played behind him here.

 

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Ongoing appreciation to photographer Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos grace the rotating banner at the top of this page, and the gulls photo just above.  Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Photo of outstretched hands by Iglesia en Valladolid, Valladolid, Spain, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/archivalladolid

3 comments to What Are We To Make of Pope Francis?

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Try a little tenderness indeed, or in the words of the Dali Lama (another key international religious figure who “walks the talk”, paraphrase here – ‘mine is the religion of kindness”… so damn simple, so darn challenging to one and all… watching the Pope-pa-looza has been delightful … hard not to find this fella inspirational, profound simplicity… thanks for the post Andrew!

  • Moon  says:

    All I know is: the week the Pope shows up, Scott Walker leaves in obscurity from the Republican Prez race, and John Boner (deliberate) resigns as Speaker of the House (and from the House entirely). These are bonafide miracles, so I am converting to Catholicism!

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Kevin, I’m glad you brought up the Dalai Lama because he seems to share many qualities with the Pope and, indeed, with many spiritual figures who reach a certain point or depth of insight and understanding: they get more playful, lighter, more forgiving of human foibles, including their own. No longer a caustic, sputtering, angry, sarcastic bone in their body—or if it’s there, they have made peace with and thus disarmed it.

    Moon, that’s impressive indeed! But an even deeper miracle will be when the Tea Party—or at least all the rage that fuels it—also leaves in obscurity from American life, or gets channeled into some kind of constructive dialogue. I won’t hold my breath on that one, but with the Berlin Wall and apartheid long gone and now Walker and Boehner too, I’ve seen enough miracles in my life to no longer think them impossible!

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