Francis just finished the most exciting week of his papacy

This story appears in the Francis in the Philippines feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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Our remarkable pope has just finished what is probably the most exciting week of his papacy. The crowds in both Sri Lanka and the Philippines were record-setting, but that is the least of it. What most amazes is that he showed his pastoral instincts in countries that were completely unfamiliar to him, and he did so deftly and courageously. Today, I should like to focus on two things he said, and one thing he didn’t, that pinpoint why this pope is not only so popular but so refreshing.

It should not surprise that the pope spoke in word and gesture about the poor. His visit to a neighborhood of shacks was something we only knew about after it happened. The pictures of his meeting with street children at a shelter next to the Cathedral in Manila melted all but the stoniest hearts. Speaking to young people in Manila, and commenting on the reading from the Gospel about the young man who walks away sad, the Holy Father said this:

You still lack one thing. Become a beggar. This is what you still lack. Learn how to beg. This isn’t easy to understand. To learn how to beg. To learn how to receive with humility. To learn to be evangelized by the poor, by those we help, the sick, orphans, they have so much to give us. Have I learned how to beg? Or am I self-sufficient? Do I think I need nothing? Do you know you too are poor? Do you know your own poverty and your need to receive? Do you let yourselves be evangelised by those you serve? This is what helps you mature in your commitment to give to others. Learn how to open your hand from your very own poverty.

Here we see the most forceful articulation yet of how he views the Church’s mission to the poor: It is not just about helping them in the material circumstances of their lives. We are not do-gooders who happen to go to Mass. We need the poor because they will evangelize us. I am not sure I would have known what he was talking about except for an incident in my own life from some years back. My housemate asked if we could take in a friend who had lost his job and was also losing his apartment. I knew this person and knew he had a bad drug habit so the only stipulation I put on the arrangement was that he would not bring any drugs into my house. He agreed. But, of course, a couple of weeks later, there was a bag of drugs on the counter in the bathroom. I confronted him about it. I explained why I found this intolerable and he apologized profusely, but the entire time, he was only really thinking about getting high again. In that encounter, I realized how dreadful it must be to be so crippled, so enslaved, by drugs, but that realization invited me to look at the ways I am crippled and enslaved, not to drugs, but to my attitudes, my commitments, my agenda. I could not say, at the end of our conversation, what I had intended to say: “If this happens again, I will have to ask you to leave.” I couldn’t do it. How to threaten someone with homelessness, someone who has so little, simply because they could not conform to my rules. I confess, I did not feel good about any of it. But, the point of the Christian life is not to feel good, is it?

The Holy Father spoke forcefully against “ideological colonization.” And, for many NCR readers, these were his most unwelcome comments. He spoke of the “threat” of redefining marriage and of not being open to life. Pope Francis said,

While all too many people live in dire poverty, others are caught up in materialism and lifestyles which are destructive of family life and the most basic demands of Christian morality.  The family is also threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life. 

I think the pope got the order correct: First poverty, then materialism, then a culture that is imbued with the kind of Enlightenment ideals that, once introduced into our understanding of the family, have been deeply disruptive.

In the United States, of course, with its high divorce rate over several decades, the arguments about redefining civil marriage to include same-sex couples being a civilizational threat, strike me as overwrought. It has been a long, long time since our U.S. culture meant by marriage what the Church means by marriage. In a more traditional culture like the Philippines, I am not sure how such issues play out. But, it is almost amusing to see people in a state of shock because the pope teaches what the Church has always taught, and something that, until about fifteen years ago, not even LGBT-activists were calling for.

And, I continue to believe, with the pope, that the message of Humanae Vitae, its warnings against seeing human life as something to be manipulated and, just so, something no longer seen as a gift, remains profoundly true, even if, in the circumstances of a couple’s own life, they find themselves looking for other ways to be “open to life” than through procreation. I can’t find the article this morning, but I saw someone contrast the kind, gentle Pope Francis with the mean, old Pope Paul VI, because Francis said that this teaching about openness to life must be handled in a pastoral manner, taking account of each couple’s situation. Of course, Francis was quoting Paul VI in that passage. I will say it again, and again, and until my dying day: When the history of the twentieth century is written, Paul VI will be known as the greatest pope of that century.

I return to the heading “ideological colonization.” We all know that our government, and several UN agencies, try to get other countries to adopt our standards on issues like birth control, and soon on same sex marriage, as a condition of getting aid. It is more than a little ironic that countries with the largest per person carbon footprints like the US are telling countries with relatively small carbon footprints, that their population rates are a problem. This puts the imperiousness back into imperialism. But, I think any fair minded person, of the left or the right, can recognize that the inheritance of the Enlightenment is a mixed bag and that traditional societies are within their rights to resist that inheritance when it is force fed to them. Yesterday, at Mass, we heard in the reading from Corinthians:

Do you not know that your body

is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,

whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?

You could not better sum up the underlying ideological posture of the Enlightenment than to render as it “you are your own.” But, as Catholic Christians, we are not our own. This tension between the Enlightenment ideals and our Catholic imagination is a delicate one, sometimes capable for fruitfulness for both sides, but always there is this difficulty: The freedom that we Westerners like to claim and to celebrate is different from the freedom that is ours as children of God, a freedom that is only fully acquired by self-surrender and becoming slaves to the Lord.

Finally, the thing he did not say. In Tacloban, where the typhoon wrought such enormous devastation, the pope said he must be silent in the face of such suffering and the questions those sufferings prompt. In Manila, after hearing the testimony of two young street kids, he said that tears were the only response he could offer. Those who stride large stages, popes and presidents and prime ministers, are always expected to have something to say. Sadly, many people are satisfied with simplistic answers, which is why propaganda is often effective. But, our wonderful Holy Father recognizes that there are sufferings that have no answer, indeed, that the effort to supply such an answer is offensive. Suffering is the flip side of love, better to say the face of love in evil circumstances, and we can’t really explain love either, and attempts to do so end up robbing love of its power. More than in any words he spoke, in his silence the pope asked us to enter into the mystery of our redemption, to turn not to him for answers but to Christ for consolation and solidarity. My colleague Ken Briggs has a fine meditation on this part of the pope’s journey today as well.

I love this pope so much. His gift for speaking plainly permits him to reach the multitudes in the deepest parts of their hearts – which, incidentally, makes me laugh when a certain type of Catholic objects to Pope Francis because he is “so confusing.” His understanding of the power of gesture comes not from an actor’s training but from a powerful engagement with the Scriptures, grasped as a story of love, absolute love, not as a minefield for “moral truths” and natural law syllogisms. He preaches the Gospel with such force, even when his preaching recognizes it must go silent because there are no words. How blessed we are to have him leading our Church at this moment in our history, asking all of us, asking whole cultures and peoples, to stretch, to renew ourselves in our baptismal waters, and embrace our mission, our most fundamental mission, to preach the good news, good news for the poor and the downtrodden, uncomfortable news for the comfortable and the affluent, but in this pope’s hands, good news that rekindles the freshness of the Gospel. It is easy listening to him to imagine oneself in Rome or Salonika, listening to Peter or Paul for the first time.  

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