As the world anxiously awaited the election of a new pope a year ago, I confess that I was bracing myself for battle. I was eager for battle with the world and for a leader who would give clear marching orders. Along with many Catholics, I saw myself on the losing end in a society that legitimized abortion, homosexual marriage, and licentiousness. A dark mood of pessimism, anger, and outrage over cultural developments had taken hold. I envisioned a pope, who would tell me what to do and say and not to back down in the culture war and the battle for the soul of mankind. Like warriors under siege, fellow Catholics and I waited for a general to double our resolve and hoist our flag to spite the enemy. This is not what we got.
Pope Francis did not mince words, but those were not the words I had expected. He made us look in a mirror. As it turned out, we had kept Christ hostage in our castle during the siege. When the Holy Father spoke of the danger of clericalism, he urged us to open the gates, to let the light in and to become the light of the world. This was the beginning of a new kind of battle, a battle that can never be lost, because the rules of engagement are shifted. The power of Pope Francis’ words comes from love, hope and joy. Instead of arms, he gave us Christ’s tender embrace.
This last year has offered a respite. It is wonderful, not having to feel angry and outraged much of the time. Instead of feeling that their societies and culture are perpetually against them, Catholics should now feel for the world and recognize its deep need for the joy of the gospel. It should come as no surprise that many non-Catholics are reading the Pope’s Exhortation on the “Joy of the Gospel” while many Catholics are not.
Pope Francis’s message of having to love first, to show compassion and to not condemn, but to look at ourselves, has been an uncomfortable one for many. Faith starts with us and how we personally live the joy of the gospel. Being reminded of our own frailty, we learn to appreciate God’s love for us anew and find new confidence in humility. We, too, are sinners and God’s love for us despite our weaknesses, strengthens us to meet the world with joy and a giving heart.
There are many other uncomfortable messages we needed to hear. The exhortation covers a wide range of issues and the Pope’s critical words on economics have raised many eyebrows. Granted, we need not agree with everything the Holy Father says. However, the exhortation made clear that he is the pope of a universal church and we, ourselves, should widen our view. May we not forget that our responsibilities lie not only with our own Western societies, but with all humanity. As long as people are starving in the world, we need to keep our own social disagreements in perspective and do more and complain less.
There is a reason, I suspect, that our Holy Father did not choose George as his name. Rather than lead with dragon slaying and a sword, he does so with a tender humility that draws us in and strengthens us in the sacraments. Will we be able to make this attitude our own? This pontificate poses many challenges to us. Whether we are up to it remains to be seen. Let us pray as a Church together that we are.