Why We (Still) Love Pope Francis | Sojourners

Why We (Still) Love Pope Francis

Image via Cathleen Falsani / Sojourners

Non ricordiamo giorni; re ricordano momenti.

“We do not remember days,” the Italian poet Cesare Pavese said, “we remember moments.”

Pavese’s words have come to mind often as I’ve thought about Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States, particularly when people have asked me what the “best part” of covering the papal visit was for me.

My answer is always the same: hands down the best part was watching people see (and sometimes meet) Pope Francis in person for the first time.

The expressions on the faces of men and women and children of various ages, ethnicities, and (surely) spiritual predilections invariably were filled with a kind of unselfconscious joy — often accompanied by unexpected tears — the likes of which I’ve rarely witnessed.

Looking back on Pope Francis’ six days in Washington, New York City, and Philadelphia, even when I can’t recall every detail of a moment, I remember the faces.

The father who wept as he lifted his sleeping toddler son, who wore a nasal cannula for oxygen, to Pope Francis when he stopped to bless the child in Madison Square Garden before the start of the papal mass.

The unbridled elation that washed over 8-year-old Aiden, who had been standing in the crowd with his mother since dawn, when he (finally) caught a glimpse of Papa Francesco across the South Lawn of the White House.

The elderly woman wearing a Pope Francis t-shirt who was so completely overjoyed at having watched the pontiff waive at her from the open window of his papal Fiat on his way to the Vatican embassy in Washington that she hugged a complete stranger (me). Twice.

The veteran news broadcaster wiping a tear from his eye when, I suspect, he thought no one was looking.

Thousands of faces in the crowds that lined Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway — smiling, cheering, shouting, crying as the popemobile pulled into view.

Pope Francis’s astounding popularity is indisputable and is not limited only to his Catholic flock. A New York Times/CBS News poll last month found that American Catholics overwhelmingly approve of Francis’ leadership of the church with a robust majority also holding favorable opinions of him personally.

The same poll also showed that 45 percent of respondents see Francis more as a leader and humanitarian spokesman for all people — regardless what religious persuasion — than just the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.4 billion Roman Catholics.

And a recent Pew Research Center poll found that 74 percent of white, mainline Protestants and 68 percent of the elusive “nones” (those who claim no religious affiliation) give Pope Francis a positive or high approval rating.

So, why do we love Pope Francis? What does it mean and why does it matter?

Last year in Rome, while reflecting on Francis' nearly universal popularity inside and out of the church, one member of the Curia in Rome put it this way:

People came to St. Peter's Square to see Pope John Paul II.

People came to St. Peter's Square to hear Pope Benedict XVI.

People come to St. Peter's Square to feel Pope Francis.

Why do people want to "feel" Francis?

Because he has thrown open his arms wide to all of us, without caveat or exception, and extended the unflinching, unfailing love of God. And because he has broken down the walls, real and imagined, that separate the hierarchy of power and privilege from the rest of the world.

Whether it’s choosing to ride in the backseat of an economy car instead of an armored limousine, wearing black work shoes (his only pair) rather than the finest red leather slippers, or referring to himself most often as our "brother" and equal than as a father speaking to his children, he comports himself as a humble pilgrim who asks us to pray for him.

Francis is selfless in the age of the selfie, and yet he appears to take great delight in obliging requests, particularly from young people, to take a selfie with him as he did outside Our Lady Queen of Angels School in Harlem last month.

When he stopped the papal Fiat on the tarmac in Philadelphia to greet a 10-year-old boy in a wheelchair, the pontiff didn’t just give the lad a quick pat on the head. He practically dove into the boy’s space, enveloping him in an embrace, cradling his face with both hands, and kissing him on the cheek. It wasn’t just an “I see you” gesture. It was “I love you and I am with you” in 20-foot-high letters.

That, my friends, is how you preach the Gospel.

Pope Francis doesn’t ask us to “tolerate” each other. No one wants to be tolerated. You tolerate a heat rash or a noisy upstairs neighbor. No, this pope calls us to love one another and moreover to comfort, console, and accompany each other as members of the same family.

Just as Christ came to earth as a human being to walk with us as one of us, Francis is with us, among us, a “shepherd with the smell of his sheep on him,” to use his own words. Pope Francis mirrors the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in this and many other ways.

More than a few of the millions of people who turned out on the East Coast late last month to see and hear Pope Francis did so because they wanted to feel him — to touch him or embrace him — because unlike any other pontiff in memory, there’s actually a chance for everyday people, pilgrims and skeptics alike, to do just that.

We paid close attention to what Pope Francis had to say while he was here, to Congress, the United Nations, survivors of clergy sexual abuse, prisoners doing hard time, school children, and his fellow bishops, priests, and women religious.

And he had a lot to say — about the environment and social justice, about the death penalty and immigration, about the family and our collective responsibility to generations to come.

He spoke eloquently in his native Spanish, Italian, and English. But he spoke most memorably without using words — every action, every choice along the way telegraphing the Good News of God’s radical love for all of humankind, and especially for the very least of us.

It’s not a new message, but somehow people are hearing it in a new, powerful way from this head of state who seems genuinely to want nothing more than to be a servant and serve all of God’s children with passionate humility.

That’s why when news broke of the pope’s alleged “audience” with Kim Davis, many of us were shocked and disheartened. Not because he met with her — following in his savior’s footsteps, Pope Francis would appear to be no respecter of persons — but because at first glance it seemed like he had given a divine imprimatur to her brand of heavy-handed, triumphalist, spiritual bullying in the name of religious freedom and “conscientious objection.”

It’s safe to say Pope Francis believes in the traditional definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman. But the clanging dissonance many of us heard when Davis’ cronies at the Liberty Counsel tried to turn a group meet-and-greet into a papal blessing for a narrow political movement, was not because of what Davis believes, but the way she has chosen to impose those beliefs on others.

Certainly not very Jesusy. And not very Francis.

So when the Vatican took the unusual step to issue a media release essentially correcting the story promulgated by Davis and her people, many of us were relieved, not because the true story validated our political or social notions, but because it affirmed the message — in words and actions — that the pope had delivered consistently during his U.S. visit.

Every step Pope Francis made on U.S. soil and every word he spoke was about reaching out to the margins, to the disenfranchised and despised, to the poor and the sick, the voiceless and the victimized, the wounded and those who wander (but are not lost), and inviting all into the family of God, into God’s mercy and tenderness, into the eternal grace of God’s loving embrace.

You can see it on the video footage of Francis in his only “official audience” in Washington with with one of his former students from Argentina, Yayo Grassi, 67, who is gay, along with his longtime partner, Iwan Bagus, and other family members, whom the pope personally invited (by calling Grassi’s cell phone) to visit him at the papal nunciature in D.C.

You see it in the huge smiles, the big hugs, and the obvious affection Pope Francis and Yayo have for each other. You see it in the tears Yayo’s mother sheds when she meets the pope, in the gentle crosses the pope traces on their foreheads as he imparts his blessing.

Perhaps our fondness for Pope Francis is a manifestation of a much more global spiritual shift — a reorientation or recalibration toward a faith and an understanding of God and God’s “tenderness,” as he likes to call it, that is, simply put, more.

More expansive.

More inclusive.

More generous.

More loving.

More grace-filled.

More inviting.

More joyous.

More forgiving.

More awake.

More present.

More authentic.

More than European.

More than First World.

More real.

More mysterious.

More immediate.

More unexpected.

More transcendent.

More merciful.

More audacious.

More than this.

Just ... MORE.

More is what Jesus came to bring to all of creation (and what part of all do we not understand?)

Pope Francis' Jesuit tradition embraces this idea of "more" — they call it magis, the Latin word for "more" or "better" — as central to their Ignatian spirituality. It's taken from the Jesuit motto Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, which means "for the greater glory of God."

Traditionally, magis or "the more" has been interpreted to mean doing more, being more, and achieving more than we thought possible. Magis calls us to strive for true depth and quality in everything we do. And it invites us to serve the world better, with passion, zeal, and joy.

But The More is more than that, too.

St. Paul explains it better than I could in the third chapter of his Letter to the Church in Ephesus where he describes the "extravagant dimensions" of Christ's love, saying,

“Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God. God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.”

— Ephesians 3:19-21 (MSG)

Perhaps the Spirit has been working with us, gently, through technology, the arts, science, politics, cultural evolution, and yes, even religion, to bring us to the place where everything points to The More, when we are ready to hear the invitation to grace and mercy from such a man as Francis.

And maybe the Spirit has sent us an unlikely shepherd — even if we aren't officially members of his flock or don't actually consider ourselves sheep in the first place — who, like C.S. Lewis' Aslan, is not safe, but definitely is good, to show us the way.

Francis may be the right man for this place and time, and this place and time are right for a man such as Francis.

“Please pray for me,” Francis said in his final words during a mass in Philadelphia attended by more than 1 million people. “Don’t forget.”

We won’t, Papa. We’ll remember.

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