A bearded young man sits a few rows from the stage in the Tabernacle, a concert hall in Atlanta, Georgia. Conan O’Brien, the famously ginger-haired comedian whose show is broadcasting live from Atlanta throughout the week, notices something unusual about the man. Namely that, despite the fact that he looks rather like a granola-munching hiker from the Pacific Northwest, he’s wearing a homemade papal miter. Intrigued, Conan carries on with him for several minutes during his opening monologue. Conan is being cheeky, sure, but so is our granola pope.
But there still something odd here isn’t there? Something underneath the cheekiness. After all, it’s not just Conan who’s expressing some genuine intrigue about the effects being wrought by Pope Francis. No, something new is afoot.
Ten to one my perspective on this is tainted by the fact that I’m a Jesuit, but that said, isn’t Pope Francis everywhere these days? And in… I don’t want to jinx this now… favorable news stories? It’s not just me, right? I mean, isn’t he actually all over in the news, being talked about on talk shows, and hashtag-ed and meme-ed like a pop star? It sure seems like it.
A common thread running through all the papal buzz: “This Guy Means Business.” And I’ll freely admit to being amazed at how many of my non-churchy friends find #PopeFrancis to be a compelling, humble witness.1
I think the key is this: he’s made a conscious choice to lead with actions instead of words. He reaches out to people the world politely avoids. He’s clearly aware of some key questions about the role of women in the Church. He not only decries clericalism and self-absorption among the clergy, he shows what it looks like to not be clerical and self-absorbed. And I find this… well, I find it amazing. And inspiring.
I find it amazing that Pope Francis so focused outward, and I’m inspired that he sets his own priorities based on others needs. That he’s ready to get to work in the imperfect world that is rather than decry what it isn’t I find amazing. That he challenges us all – inside the Church or out – to remember why a Church exists at all I find inspiring. About just that point (why there is a Church at all) he said this:
“We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a Church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a Church becomes like this, it grows sick. It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But if the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age.”
If we stay wrapped up in ourselves…
As I sat down to write this piece I glanced outside my bedroom window. My glance took in another less-than-stellar day in the less-than-stellar neighborhood in which my Jesuit community rests. It’s cloudy out and gray, and the gray refuse hidden for months under the winter’s snow has begun to show. Even the snow is gray. Across the street two men are boozily play-fighting in the snow, one pretending to kick the other in the stomach. On this side of the street our sidewalk remains flooded, trapped from draining by large snowbanks that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. “Stupid condo association,” I think to myself, “what do we pay them for, anyway?”
“This sucks,” I mutter to no one, and try to refocus on the task at hand. I try to ignore my irritation at the world’s apparent boycott of my contentment. I have to write. Okay, I remind myself: “Pope… joyful witness… attention on others… love is shown in deeds not words…”. And then the loud din of metal striking rough ice: KKKK! KKKK! KKKK!
“Now what?!” I cry, craning my neck to see out the window.
I see our neighbor (gosh, what’s her name?), she’s outside trying to carve a sluice in the snowheap so the water can drain from our flooded sidewalk. It takes several minutes of trying to ignore the sound before I realize that she is doing what I am writing about.
It is now two hours later, and I’ve returned to my writing chair. Dawn and I, together, have just carved our own little Grand Canyon in that ice heap, allowing the block-long pond to drain. My typing fingers are blistered, but my irritation at an inattentive world has calmed.
As I was saying, I think the secret to Pope Francis’s attraction is that he leads not with words, but with actions; like he’s excited to live out the stuff that Jesus tells us to do. It’s his words that fall in line with his actions rather than vice versa. The man who washes feet of prisoners also says this: “If I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out onto the streets, and a sick withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first one.”
Me too, Francis. Me too.
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- Others have compellingly argued that Pope Benedict was equally humble, but had other priorities. I would agree. But that is not the subject of this piece. ↩