Pope Francis at World Youth Day

This story appears in the World Youth Day 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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The images from World Youth Day were mesmerizing. Pope Francis came to Krakow, a city we associate so thoroughly with St. Pope John Paul II. At least in America, so many of those who championed John Paul II, who refer to him as "John Paul the Great," are among the leading critics of Francis, and there was an expectation the enthusiasm might be dimmed. The Polish episcopate is known for its conservatism, as seen at the last synods: How would they respond? And the civil leaders, committed to a nationalism that sees migrants and refugees as a threat to Polish identity, how would they react to Pope Francis' repeated calls to build bridges not walls? Would the pope tone it down?

None of the fears materialized. The crowds were enormous and enthusiastic. The pope met with the Polish hierarchy at Wawel Cathedral, and the meeting was private, with no text released, which is rare, especially with such a large hierarchy. (You will recall that last September, when he came to the U.S., Pope Francis met with the U.S. hierarchy at St. Matthew's Cathedral and the speech was telecast.) All weekend, I have been hitting up sources to find out if there was any tension at the meeting, but not a murmur has emerged. The president and first lady of Poland may have had to bite their lips, but they listened as the Holy Father called for a welcome to migrants, and they surely noted that crowds roared their approval.

For me, watching the pope in Krakow brought back vivid memories of visiting that magnificent city with my dad 16 years ago. Friends who were there (or their parents) sent photos that brought back memories: The Rynek, St. Mary's Church and the other amazing churches, and Wawel. (I urged everyone to not miss the opportunity to dine at Pod Aniolami, "Under the Angel," while there to have some great Polish cooking!) Like everyone on the planet, I was moved by the Holy Father's visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and my dad reminded me that, like the pope, I was struck dumb when visiting that evil place, something that does not often happen to me. There are no words to be spoken after one's nostrils fill with the stench of evil that still hits you as you walk through the gate or along the train tracks of the death camp.

The Holy Father delivered many splendid talks, two of which really struck me as critical to understanding his entire pontificate. When Pope Francis celebrated Mass with the priests, religious and seminarians at the Shrine to St. John Paul II, he preached from the Gospel of John, the story of doubting Thomas. The sermon in its entirety is a masterpiece, but these two paragraphs seem to me to capture the quintessence of what Pope Francis wants the Church to reflect upon in this Year of Mercy:

For us who are disciples, it is important to put our humanity in contact with the flesh of the Lord, to bring to him, with complete trust and utter sincerity, our whole being. As Jesus told Saint Faustina, he is happy when we tell him everything: he is not bored with our lives, which he already knows; he waits for us to tell him even about the events of our day (cf. Diary, 6 September 1937). That is the way to seek God: through prayer that is transparent and unafraid to hand over to him our troubles, our struggles and our resistance. Jesus' heart is won over by sincere openness, by hearts capable of acknowledging and grieving over their weakness, yet trusting that precisely there God's mercy will be active.

What does Jesus ask of us? He desires hearts that are truly consecrated, hearts that draw life from his forgiveness in order to pour it out with compassion on our brothers and sisters. Jesus wants hearts that are open and tender towards the weak, never hearts that are hardened. He wants docile and transparent hearts that do not dissimulate before those whom the Church appoints as our guides. Disciples do not hesitate to ask questions, they have the courage to face their misgivings and bring them to the Lord, to their formators and superiors, without calculations or reticence. A faithful disciple engages in constant watchful discernment, knowing that the heart must be trained daily, beginning with the affections, to flee every form of duplicity in attitudes and in life.

God's activity is seen in the acknowledgement of and grief over our weaknesses. That activity yields a compassionate heart, docile and transparent. This is so central to Francis' teaching. It is where the difference between him and his immediate predecessors is so clear: He does not complain about the relativism of the world and he does not evoke the image of an "heroic priesthood," of those in battle gear, concerned to draw clear boundaries between the just and the unjust, the elect and the damned. For Francis, mercy is not a phrase but a way of life. It is stunning that for so long the Church has minimized, if not overlooked, the centrality of mercy in the Gospels.

Yet, in Krakow, home of St. Faustina and St. John Paul II, it can be said that they planted the seed that Francis is cultivating. For so many years, like all planted seeds, it was unseen. Now, it has burst forth like forsythia in the springtime. I suspect it was less of a surprise in Catholic countries like Poland and the countries of Latin America, where the reduction of religion to morals was never an important project as it was here in the U.S. and especially among John Paul II's principal "interpreters." But, the Poles began building the large, and regrettably ugly, sanctuary to Divine Mercy while John Paul II was still pope. They knew. The simple understood that the Gospels reveal God as rich in mercy, not condemnation, and could distinguish between the Gospel and the neo-conservative cultural critique that accompanied the Gospel among so many of the Catholic elite these past few decades.

In his final sermon, at the closing Mass, Pope Francis preached on the Gospel account of Zacchaeus. He said:

It was the grumbling of the crowd, who first blocked him and then criticized him: How could Jesus have entered his house, the house of a sinner! How truly hard it is to welcome Jesus, how hard it is to accept a 'God who is rich in mercy' (Ephesians 2:4)! People will try to block you, to make you think that God is distant, rigid and insensitive, good to the good and bad to the bad. Instead, our heavenly Father 'makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good' (Matthew 5:45). 

Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis confronted what he called neo-Pelagianism, the idea that we earn our way to heaven by living moral lives. In no country has this essentially mercantile understanding of grace been more obvious and widespread than in these United States. As this passage in his sermon indicates, he is still confronting it and it sure sounds like he confronts it on a regular basis in the Vatican curia ("people will try to block you!")!

Some American critics of Pope Francis, and some American prelates as well, have taken to saying that they find this most plain spoken pope "confusing," or that their people find him "confusing." I have always been suspicious of the claim, thinking that instead of just saying they disagree with the pope, they hide behind this "confusion." The people of Poland and the young people gathered from around the world, they apparently do not have a hard time grasping what Pope Francis is saying. We may never know what was said in his meeting with the Polish episcopate, but I am guessing Francis has his allies there too. The themes of Francis' pontificate are not new. They are not alien. They are in the Gospel, on every page. The outpouring of affection for Francis in John Paul II's hometown only demonstrates how out of touch the critics of Francis are, out of touch with the people, out of touch with the pope, and out of touch with the Gospel. The critics are not confused, they are grumbling, but the rest of us are thrilled.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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