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In the Church with Pope Francis

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ |  08 January 2014

Everyone knows that Pope Francis is different. When he was elected no one would have expected the new Pope to go back to the guest house with the other Cardinals in a bus or to celebrate Holy Thursday at the Juvenile Gaol, let alone wash the feet of young men and women, Muslim and Christian, with tattoos and without. Nor would anyone have expected him to ring up people out of the blue and to give long interviews to newspapers.

His down to earth way of speaking came as a surprise, too. He prefers an accident-prone Church to a sick one, tells priests that shepherds should smell like the sheep and urges us not to be sourpusses.

But most people like what they have seen and heard in Pope Francis. He has a distinctive way of communicating the Good News of the Gospel. In this Explorations we shall look at what this means to him.

Going out of the house
The Pope sees the Church's business as going out into the streets. For him, faith is a door through which we allow Jesus in. Jesus then invites us to go outside to greet other people. We are not to settle down within a comfortable church but to go out to people who are hungry.

He showed what this is like when he visited the young prisoners on Holy Thursday, and when he went to the island of Lampedusa to meet the asylum seekers who were seeking a decent life. When visiting Brazil for World Youth Day, too, he went out of his way to visit one of the most lawless slums there.

For him, a Church preoccupied with itself and with getting things right misses the point. God wants us to go out to share with others the gift of our faith.

Showing God's compassion
When we go out of our comfortable world, Pope Francis also wants us to express God's compassion. He speaks of compassion more through gestures than words. He follows the advice of his namesake St Francis of Assisi always to preach the Gospel but only sometimes in words. He shows compassion by making his way through the crowd to embrace people who are disabled, by speaking acceptingly about gay people.

We are most struck by compassion when we feel that the person who is compassionate to us is more important than we are. Because we expected them to be a little distant, we are surprised when they put themselves on the same level as us. It is impossible to stand on your dignity and show compassion.

That is why, when God wanted to show compassion to us, his Son became human to join us in the mess of our lives. When we know that he has shared our life and the pain of our death we are amazed by his compassion. Similarly, people experience the Pope's compassion when he walks among them and speaks their ordinary language. And we speak most powerfully of God's compassion when we go out among people, are friendly, speak colloquially, and don't judge them.

What kind of a Church?
When Pope Francis goes out he is not simply an individual but a follower of Jesus in his Church. He wants us, too, to be part of a Church that goes out to those in need. He says it should be like a field hospital in a time of war, where people can find care and compassion for the wounds that threaten their lives. They don't need instructions to stop smoking or do exercise. That might come later. So we should stay with people in what matters and not give them lists of instructions about small things.

Because he wants the Church to meet people compassionately, the Pope addresses many of his words to people who are ministers in the Church, especially bishops and priests. He tells them that they are shepherds, and so they should smell like the sheep. He sees their great temptations to be careerism, greed, clerical privilege and fussiness about churchy things. These qualities stop us from going out simply to others.

We can see what Pope Francis wants the Church to look like when he leaves the papal car and his security guards to greet and bless people in wheelchairs, and when he leaves the cathedral of Rio de Janeiro to go into the slums to mix with the ordinary people there. By doing this he shows that the centre of the Church lies outside itself and that Christ is found in his brothers and sisters to whom the good news has not yet reached, and especially the poor.

It is hard to go out to ordinary people and to show God's compassion if we live in a mansion, dine out every night and drive a Rolls Royce. So Pope Francis dresses simply, travels simply, eats simply, and lives in a guest house. When he speaks of the poor he comes across as someone who knows the poor. He is one of God's people, not their boss. This is how he would like the Church to be. Although his simplicity of life is a personal choice, we find ourselves wondering whether any other style of life cuts it in a Church going out to the poor.

Who do we go out to?
Pope Francis has mentioned many people to whom we are called to go. They all lie on the edges of the Church's life. So they are the centre of the Church's interest. He asks people to go out especially to the people who have become estranged from the Church or have drifted away from it. They need to find God's compassion and love in the Catholics they encounter.

Pope Francis has also paid great attention to the poor. In that he follows Jesus' example. He often appeals to the story of the Good Samaritan who stopped to care for the man who was mugged. When he went to Lampedusa he prayed for people who had died on their journey to seek protection in Europe, and met the people in detention. He celebrated Mass in penance for the way in which asylum seekers are treated. His actions spoke loudly of God's love for each of us, and of Christ's call to show compassion to the despised of our world.

Pope Francis does not go out only to Catholics. He also speaks easily with people who have no religious faith and who disagree with the Church. He welcomes them and refuses to judge them, saying that if they are following their conscience they are open to God. He shows that we should never judge others.

What do we say when we go out?
Pope Francis suggests that what we say must be simple. It must be about what matters. We are to speak of the mercy of God shown in Jesus. The details of faith and of the Christian life can be explained later.

The Pope's own message is summed up in his motto: Christ has compassion on us and chooses us. He comes to each of us in our need and misery, not to judge us but to join us and to die with us, so that God will raise us to life with him. The Gospel is all about the joy of being loved and called as sinners.

When we go out to people the most important thing is not to have right words but to communicate God's love and compassion. We do this through the way in which we relate to people. If we are defensive, aggressive or debate about words we communicate insecurity and a lack of interest in the other person. We may win the debate but we shall lose the person with whom we talk.

Where does the energy
for sharing faith come from? Pope Francis says that his joy and compassion come from his deep conviction that he is a sinner. That will seem odd to many of us. Talk about sin can be very negative. If someone calls us a sinner we quickly think that we are as good as anyone else. So we don't often hear sermons about sin, and we may feel depressed by those we do hear.

We understand what Pope Francis means better if we realise that there are two approaches to sin. One is negative. In it we are preoccupied with sin and breaking the commandments. We think that our lives are worthless and that God must be disappointed in us. So we beat up on ourselves go to confession and make resolutions to do better and meet expectations. But all we find is more failure. Some people call this attitude the 'Catholic guilts'.

We can live good lives if we think this way, but Jesus offers us much more than this.

The second approach to sin is Pope Francis'. In it we recognise how much we sin and fail to live generously but are overwhelmed that God loves us so dearly as sinners. All our attention is on God's great love and compassion for us and not on our own failure. As a result we can see our weakness and sinfulness more clearly - we are surprised and delighted to find ourselves loved so much, not because we are as good as other people, but because we are as bad as them. And God still loves us and invites us to follow Jesus as our brother.

The first approach often makes us judge others because we see in them the sins we hate in ourselves. The second approach makes us see other people like ourselves because God also loves them, and we want to go out to them. The first approach makes us fearful and selfpreoccupied. The second gives us freedom and confidence to look out to others.

This is the approach of Pope Francis. It enables him to recognise his own limitations, to be seen as the weak man he is but as loved by God so that he can follow Jesus in going out to others. He is free from expectations and so dangerous.

If you are free you need a compass to steer by. For Francis the compass is his habit of reflecting on himself and on the movements of his heart, on the world he lives in and on how what he does will best realise God's hopes for wholeness in a broken world. His personal relationship to Jesus also fills his imagination.

What does this mean for us?
The first thing we can learn from Pope Francis is to listen to the deepest longings of our heart and follow them. To spread the good news about the treasure of the Gospel we need to have found it ourselves and made it the centre of our lives.

Second, if we have discovered God's compassion, we can only share it with others by being compassionate and not judging them. Spreading the faith is a love affair, not a war.

Third, the example of Pope Francis invites us to go beyond where we are comfortable: to involve ourselves in activities that let us meet disadvantaged people face to face, to speak with others about our faith and doubts, and to listen quietly when people tell us things about themselves that disturb us. People will find God's compassion in our presence and our silences even more than in our words.

Evangelii Gaudium ('The Joy of the Gospel') Apostolic Exhortation from Pope Francis.


Topic tags: church-thepeopleofgod, ourrelationshipwithgod, catholicsocialteaching, volunteeringandtakingaction

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