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December 19, 2013
Who do people say Pope Francis is?
By Elise Italiano *

By Elise Italiano *

Do not be robbed of joy while taking in media clamor.

The definitive question that Jesus asks in the Gospels is “Who do you say that I am?” He poses this question to His Apostles – the twelve men whom He chose to be his closest followers, those who would testify to the world about what they “had heard, what they had seen with their eyes, which they had looked at and what their hands had touched.” (1 John: 1). The Apostles report that other people confused Him with John the Baptist, others that He was Elijah who had returned to earth, and some others thought He was just another prophet. When He asks Peter what he thinks, Peter responds, “You are the Christ; the Son of the Living God.” (Mt. 16:16) According to Jesus Himself, this is the only correct answer to the question. Jesus is not a nice guy with good ideas, or a philosopher, or a political leader. He’s God.

Jesus goes on to talk about what the life of someone who confesses Him as Lord will entail: It will involve suffering while proclaiming this truth, a morality that the world does not always recognize, and solidarity with the poor and rejected. Ultimately, the followers of Christ, those who share Peter’s answer, will be built up into the Church.  And it is Peter’s faith passed down through the ages that will sustain those who bear the name “Christian.”

Over the past few weeks, there have been a lot of people commenting on the question, “Who do people say that Pope Francis is?” The clamor about his papacy, his agenda, his interviews, and his views on matters of faith is deafening. I find this incredibly ironic in the liturgical season of Advent, when we are called to live in quiet expectation of the coming of Christ, who comes not in shouting or with thunderous applause, but in the quiet of the night in a stable in Bethlehem.

As I skimmed the headlines and read the articles, I was struck by how many people, Catholics and non-Catholics, self-identified liberals and conservatives, those who embrace orthodoxy and those who find it irrelevant, all claimed to know “the real Francis.” We shouldn’t let this distract us. To be sure, those in the media who do not practice the Faith – who do not receive the sacraments, who do not believe in the Resurrection, who do not embrace apostolic tradition and obedience to a teaching authority – might not be looking through the same lens as those who are in the fold. But this does not mean that the lens through which they look at Francis is broken. The very fact that they have recognized the head of a Church which is regularly maligned or viewed as antiquated is something that should fill us with joy! As Catholics we believe that beauty and goodness will ultimately attract people to the truth. Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” If people are attracted to Francis, it is because Christ is awakening in them a movement toward Himself. The Holy Father, in his apostolic exhortation, repeatedly says, “Let us not be robbed of hope! Let us not be robbed of joy!” This award is something that should fill us with joy, not with resentment, attachments to ideologies, or the desire to mold Francis (and so Jesus) into who we prefer him to be. Even when Peter gets the answer right, Jesus has to disavow him of his personal preference for who the Messiah would be. So, too, we should not hold too tightly to our preferred image of Francis. Let Francis reveal to us who he is, revealing Jesus to us as he does.

To say that the media has missed a few things is true. It is, of course, important to clarify some misrepresentations of the faith in order to enlighten those who have not heard the Gospel in its fullness. But to say that they aren’t seeing the “real Francis,” and so are not seeing the “real Jesus,” is misguided. That would be akin to saying that only the Apostles saw “the real Jesus” – they were, after all, Jews, and so were expecting the Messianic fulfillment. They ate with Jim, drank with Him, and were privy to His private explanations of the parables and His miracles. They were, no doubt, His inner circle. But the Samaritan woman at the well, a non-Jew, who had been living unchastely, also encountered “the real Jesus.” So did the blind man, the ten lepers, and the Roman centurion. So did the woman caught in adultery, the many children He embraces, and the Pharisee named Nicodemus, who belonged to a group of Jews that Jesus regularly chastised for their hypocrisy.  Their encounters with the Living God were different than those of the Apostles. They were certainly less frequent. They did not include the Last Supper or the Eucharist. Jesus did not disclose with them all that he told the twelve. But this does mean they did not meet Jesus in His fullness. Each of these persons came to recognize Jesus as their Lord, in the way that He saw fit. This is what we should be joyfully celebrating by the recognition of Pope Francis this week. People who are drawn to Francis are (albeit perhaps unknowingly), moving toward Christ, which means that ultimately, they too will have to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” We should be praying that they say with Peter, “The Son of the Living God.”

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the Apostles the story of the Prodigal Son. In light of the Pope’s secular media honor this week, I think it would be good to heed the words of the father to his other son, the one who had been faithful: “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” As we prepare to celebrate Christmas and ponder the secular celebration of Pope Francis, let us not be robbed of joy.

Elise Italiano teaches bioethics in Washington, D.C., and is a volunteer for Catholic Voices USA.
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