Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Francis Effect?

Yesterday afternoon, an interesting editorial appeared on CNN's Belief Blog. The author, John Gehring, asks the admittedly hyperbolic question: Can Pope Francis save the Catholic Church? At the end of the piece, he draws attention to what I think is the most telling contribution of these first 100 days of Francis's papacy: a change in style. "A smiling, good-humored pope stands in stark contrast to those dour-faced religious leaders who act as gloomy scolds and spy threats around every corner."

On Tuesday afternoon, after I'd run some errands, I got caught in a deluge of rain. Seeking shelter, I ducked into the doorway of a bar I visit sometimes. I recognized the bartender and, since the rain showed no sign of letting up, I ordered a beer and a chicken sandwich. Being only 4:00 in the afternoon, the place was pretty quiet. Feeling extroverted, I made small-talk with the two other guys at the bar and the bartender.

Unsolicited, the bartender started talking about his childhood and how he'd been an altar boy at his parish. I needn't recount the whole story but, suffice it to say, he's not darkened the doorway of a Church but for the odd Easter and Christmas. That said, he did share that he'd begun to feel like he wanted to go back to Church because he's been so taken with Pope Francis. The line he used, which struck a chord within me, was, "The guy just seems happy."

When I was considering a religious vocation, the fundamental reason was that I wanted to be happy like my Jesuit teachers had been happy. They weren't perfect men, to be sure, but they were joyful. To be sure, I had then and have every now and again great career ambitions and aspirations but, above all else, I know in my heart that I want to be happy, to be joyful. I was attracted to the Society of Jesus because I found joy there. If there's a Francis effect, it will arise because he radiates a joy and serenity that comes from feeling the Good News in the heart.

On Tuesday, Pope Francis called Catholics to be revolutionaries. We have been touched by love, the "greatest force for transforming reality because it breaks down the walls of selfishness and fills the chasms that keep people far from one another." Do we have the courage to rekindle the love in our hearts and allow it to be the engine of our lives? Do we have the energy and excitement to be shepherds, to go out to call others?

In what may now be my favorite Francis line: It is tempting to stay home with that one little sheep, combing it, caressing it. However, the Lord wants us to be shepherds, not hairdressers to sheep!

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One final point. Bill Maher, one of the more popular critics of religion, made headlines recently when he likened Sarah Palin's return to FOX News as being "similar to her day job: talking to a baby with Down's syndrome." From the enlightened one, this is extraordinarily sad and disappointing: Maher criticizes Christianity for being hateful and intolerant and yet his comments show no lack of intolerance and insensitivity. By comparison, one might think of Pope Francis who just the other day gave a teenager a spin in the seat of his car.


As someone with a special love for children with special needs, these pictures speak more to the credibility of Francis's humanity and humility than any homily ever could. That's a sincere smile, a smile born of love for his fellow human being. No, that young man will probably never have his own talk show, or stand-up routine, or pen a brilliant essay. His genetic condition, or the condition of others like him, does not make him any less human, nor does it make him fodder for the "enlightened" Bill Maher to mock or use to belittle those with whom he disagrees.

The credibility of the Gospel will be demonstrated in deeds first, then in words. Within my own prayer, I am grateful to say that I feel a renewed desire to "go and do likewise" in a way that brings peace, joy, and witnesses with a smile to the Good News. 
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