Beware of Pope Francis

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by Timothy Shriver

Pope Francis has brought a breath of fresh air to the world’s discourse on all things divine. For those seeking meaning and belonging, he’s repeated the gospel invitation, “Come all you who are weary and I will give you rest.” For those seeking peace and justice, he’s walked the talk by eating and celebrating with people who are homeless and in prison. For those seeking acceptance without moralizing, he’s uttered the words to define a generation, “Who am I to judge?”

Like so many others who value progressive political and religious ideals, I welcome Francis’ proclamations of the beautiful “fragrance of the gospel.” But no one should make the mistake of thinking that Francis is merely shifting the discourse from moral and cultural issues to economic and social ones. That’s only a part of the story.

When he washed the feet of a Muslim convict, he was calling on the world to end the scourge of discrimination. When he invited the homeless to his home, Francis was calling on the world to end the gulf that separates those who have from those who have almost nothing.

Most people are applauding Francis’ call to change the Catholic hierarchy, and many are welcoming his challenge to attack economic inequality. But his call to change isn’t just about the social justice we seek for others or the reform of outdated Catholic insularity. It’s also about the deep and often painful work of changing ourselves from the inside out. The Hebrew prophet Joel captured the challenge of the inner life clearly: “Change your heart, not your garments.” Still, changing one’s heart isn’t easy.

The pope emerges from the Jesuit tradition where the cultivation of the interior life is intense. In Jesuit and countless other spiritually-grounded traditions, the spiritual search is in the stillness of one’s self. Prolonged periods of silence and depth are demanded. Seeking God leads to healing and then aching to heal others.

But there is darkness, too. In spiritual work, one encounters not just God’s unconditional love of each of us, but also one’s pettiness and neediness — the embarrassing underbelly of ego and fear working together to create pride and aggression. In long periods of silence and prayer, most of us find within ourselves a humiliating hunger for prestige, possessions and power. In the spiritual life, most reach the uncomfortable conclusion that we’re the problem that most needs solving. Francis’ self definition speaks to a man who knows darkness: “I am a sinner.”

What many love in Francis are the words of a man who has undergone deep and painful change. And you shouldn’t love Francis without also admitting that most of us fall far short of undergoing that kind of change ourselves.

If we pause to look beneath the surface of a few of Francis’ most celebrated moments, his challenge is clear.

When he embraced the young man with severe disabilities, he was calling on the world to change its approach to how we value human life by putting the most vulnerable at the center. To do so, each of us needs to become more vulnerable ourselves. That’s not easy or  comfortable.

When he washed the feet of a Muslim convict, he was calling on the world to end the scourge of discrimination. To do so, each of us needs to face our own prejudices, be they ethnic, social or personal — and most prejudices are deeper than many of us care to admit.

When he invited the homeless to his home for his birthday, Francis was calling on the world to end the gulf that separates those who have from those who have almost nothing. To do so, the guest list at almost every party in Washington would have to change. Those who have no need for power over others should have an urgent longing to welcome those who are victims of power. Most of us have a lot of work to do to achieve that level of solidarity.

The initial praise for Francis may not endure. Prophets often enjoy popularity until people hear the full depth of their challenge. People on the political right are already distrustful because the pope, like many mystics, seems to be abandoning certainty and trusting in the spirit that “blows where it will.” Order and control are at risk. The layers of conformity are being peeled away and what might emerge is uncertain.

But the left should be equally nervous because the spirit also invites a firm faith in the divine. It is not elitist. It is not arrogant. It does not come with doctorates in policy and economics and the sciences. It dethrones every kind of power. Its only principle is life—the more vulnerable the more beautiful. It only makes sense with an embrace of faith.

It is that faith in the goodness of God and that freedom in the spirit that are at the heart of Francis’ example—the man of God who embraces those with disabilities, those with no home, those who are strangers among us. Beware, lest we miss the full challenge to each of us of a faith like his.

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