A Thought on the Francis Effect

Jesuit Father Thomas Reese recently published an insightful piece entitled "The church is more than just the pope" where he underscores something many of us fail to forget: we cannot put the weight of Catholicism's future on the pope's shoulders. If there is anything akin to an authentic "Francis effect," it will not be a singularly herculean feat of bearing the weight of an institution. The effect will be for all of us to "go and do likewise" and serve as we see him serve.

Last semester, I was privileged to take a course with Lisa Sowle Cahill, a renowned ethicist and moral theologian here at Boston College. One student set before himself the task of combing through the Pope's allocutions and writings to try to piece together some sense of the Holy Father's "Theology of the Cross." In an almost casual aside, Lisa drew attention to the Pope's pectoral cross.

One of the first things people notice is that it's not made of gold or studded with precious gems. Contrary to popular belief, it is made of silver and not steel, but what is most intriguing is not its metallic composition. Instead, as Lisa noted, it is what is depicted upon the cross that is most telling.

If you look carefully, you'll see that Francis wears a cross not as a fashion statement but as further testimony to the sort of Christian each of us is to become. If today many of us wear religious jewelry - or, sadly, religious clothing! - and are satisfied that this external ornament attests to our commitment, Pope Francis should be heard as exhorting us to become what we dare to wear.

Thus his cross depicts the Good Shepherd, the one who loves all of his sheep but will carry the lost one home to safety. The Good Shepherd does not rebuke the wayward lamb, does not threaten or harangue, but lifts it up and bears it back to the fold. This is not a depiction of the Pope supporting every member of the flock, absolving the rest of the Church from having to do anything for themselves. Instead, it shows Jesus at the forefront and head of the Church, leading by example: Jesus has gone to collect the lost and expects those who follow to go and do likewise.

Father Reese, in his post, shares a story of a woman who recently sought sacramental reconciliation and was yelled at. Around this time last year, a young woman I was helping to prepare for Confirmation had a similar experience. Rather than rejoicing at her return, the priest seized the opportunity to lecture her about the entirety of her sinful past, as though she wasn't already quite aware of it! To be sure, a word of counsel may be appropriate, but I simply can't imagine that it's ever necessary to yell at someone (I can't even bring myself to yell at a barista when my "plain black coffee" is somehow screwed up).

It boggles my mind that people expect the Pope to get people back into the pews. He may go a long way in restoring credibility in the institution, but if seekers enter our churches and find frigid and self-righteous congregations or obnoxious pastors, his example will be for naught. The Francis Effect, for it to be authentic, must transform our corporate Affect, helping us to become more welcoming and hospitable.

The Good Shepherd isn't good because he knows how to build secure fences to contain his flock. He is good because even when they stray, he goes out to them. There is none outside the Shepherd's reach and, each day, we are all called to be the hands and feet of the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost of this world.

If you've not received sacramental reconciliation in some time, it might be helpful to hear the formula of absolution. After one has found the courage to confess where one has strayed and expressed contrition, the priest utters these beautiful words:

God, the Father of Mercies, through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

There is no condemnation in these words but only a sense of joy at the return of the lost and wayward. What a difference it would be to the Church were those of us who know something of God's mercy were to show mercy to others, were in Father James Keenan's words, "to enter into the chaos of another" not to take away their suffering but to be a companion in their time of need. If we have received mercy and forgiveness, we must become the mercy and forgiveness we have received. 

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