With his ready smile, humility, and common touch, Pope Francis has in a mere six months won the hearts of millions and forced even the most entrenched cynics to take a deeper look at the Catholic Church. Riding a bus, wading into crowds to shake hands and kiss babies, wearing a simple white cassock and scuffed black shoes, he seems anything but royalty, which as the leader of a billion Catholics the pope traditionally has been.
It is not surprising that his actions and words have caused consternation among those who fear change in the Church and misunderstanding and fading hope among those who want a Church that conforms itself to the Spirit of the Age. Yet, for those who know Francis, he is a more than a breath of fresh air; he is a new light shining on eternal truths.
His message is simple: It is vital to bring the saving word of Jesus Christ to the millions who have not heard it or do not really understand it, and you do this not by wagging a finger in their faces but by communicating the love, mercy, and joy that are at the heart of Christianity.
Breaking with traditions and trappings forged in medieval times when popes were not only religious leaders but also secular heads of state, the new Pope has breathed new life into a Church frozen for too long in a defensive posture, battling Protestantism for 500 years and in recent centuries the secularism that would erase religion from the public square.
In a way Pope Francis is fulfilling the hope of Pope John XXIII when that beloved pontiff threw open a window in the Vatican as a symbol of his desire to let fresh air into the Church by embracing the modern world. Unfortunately, the promise of that gesture got lost—indeed perverted—by would-be modernists who hijacked the “spirit of Vatican II” and sought to turn the liturgy into a rock concert, doctrine into mushy irrelevance, and holiness in smiling relativism.
The Catholic Church was blessed with outstanding successors to John XXIII—Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI—but none of them seemed to understand that the image created by the trappings of the papacy—thrones, crowns, ermine lined capes, jeweled slippers—in the modern world projected the opposite of the simplicity, humility, and radical challenge of the Christian message.
Simply put, Jesus Christ turned everything upside down: the poor are the blessed, suffering can be turned into good, the meek are the winners, the persecuted win the prize. In this era of the worldwide internet and 24/7 news, perception quickly becomes the new reality throughout the world. Popes arrayed as royalty seemed so out of touch with the world of today.
Pope Francis understood. Even before his election to the papacy, walking through the ghettoes of Buenos Aries, rubbing shoulders with the poor, demonstrating the Christian preference for the poor, the then Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio evidenced the essence of the Christian approach to the poor: love, mercy, service.
Needless to say, there are many who hoped that some of the words and deeds of the new pontiff would lead to radical changes in the Church’s approach to abortion, homosexual marriage, premarital sex, euthanasia, women priests, and all the other items on the secularist menu. They are to be disappointed if they conclude that the Catholic Church is about to reverse its heartfelt belief on those subjects.
No, what is happening is a shift in emphasis. Nothing that Pope Francis is saying is really new. If you study the Gospels and the Catholic Catechism, God’s mercy shines forth, overshadowing doctrinal considerations. Doctrine is important; as Dorothy Sayers pointed out, faith without creed leads to chaos. But Christianity is so much more, and it’s all there to see.
Putting mercy first, Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery (but he did warn her not to commit that sin again). The repentant crooked tax collector was put ahead of the self-righteous Pharisee (but it is reasonable to conclude that he changed his ways). Today, women who have had an abortion are offered mercy, love, forgiveness and counseling in the Catholic Church. The Church refuses to marginalize homosexuals, holding them only to the same standards as heterosexuals: no sex outside of marriage. If marriage is not possible for either, then sexual restraint is the law.
In one sense, Francis has merely turned over a card, one side of which contains the “Do Nots” of the Ten Commandments, the turned-over side revealing a recipe for happiness, a way to be all that you were meant to be—a complete, happy person. Yet they are in the end saying the same thing. Do this, not that, if you seek fulfillment.
Once again, the more things change, the more they stay the same. There is nothing new under the sun. Sometimes you just have to look a little closer at what’s happening.