Please Cry for Me Argentina

St. Paul glorified Jesus by pointing out that Jesus didn't glorify himself. He did not treat "equality with God as a thing to be grasped," Paul said, so by implication, how could His followers ever pretend to be better than anyone else? In Jesus' words, the greatest are the humblest; in his ministry, he opened himself to the pains of those he encountered on the road.

Though that prescription for radical equality and honest doubt has seldom defined Christianity, it does have its exemplars from time to time, but popes haven't been notably among them. They profess unworthiness and service, but typically soon climb onto the pedestal and stay there enjoying its privileges, including the option of shielding themselves from impolite questions and glaring ugliness.

Not so Pope Francis. The self-effacement and courage to face tough issues has persisted from the day he became pope and, in effect, asked the crowd to join him in a common cause, not one of his own making as CEO. His embrace of the young girl in the Philippines was the latest and most revealing of that commitment.

His encounter with her was (so far as I know) unscripted, but even more remarkably, he was willing to open himself to whatever it might lead him, relating the sadness of her soul to his own, seemingly free of any pretense of knowing all the answers or treating her like a subordinate. He took her seriously; one suspects her question about why God permits so many like her such to suffer so ghastly bothers him too. So it was a good question and the power of that moment made a mockery of pat responses, he added. It was her teaching moment, not his, he realized, and he did not take that away from her.

Instead of trying to paper over her wound with a canned answer, he basically pleaded agnosticism. Tears like hers can bring some relief, he suggested, but didn't supply ready answers to either of him, he acknowledged. Marvelous.

Had he felt inclined, he could have taken that subject in another direction. He might have used the occasion to emphasize that apart from God's possible involvement in the world's wretched affairs, humans had inflicted enormous sufferings on other humans.Under these conditions that would have detracted from the compassion and empathy surrounding the girl's providential moment, but it does repeat a pattern whereby Francis bewails the evil of poverty but refrains from concrete remedies.

By making himself vulnerable, and allowing himself to look "unpapal" the pope continues to right size the office, removing that pedestal to stand aside rather than above fellow seekers. That could presage a wholesale revision of what authority means, easing away from the "infallibility" aura that has encased it. Then again, popes don't live long enough to achieve such amendments by themselves; the bright lights pass with no assurance that the forces that spiked hierarchy won't return. For that moment, at least, the pope and the girl were in common communion, radiating the most mysterious hope that comes from sharing life's hard edges and heartbreak.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here