Sunday, 1 September 2013

A Pope for the People

“To understand what he says, one must first understand what he does.” Bishop Eduardo Garcia, his former auxiliary in Buenos Aires, said that Pope Francis prepares what he says but also makes use of events and ideas which occur en route to delivering his message. That spontaneity is obvious as his profound and often humorous remarks are increasingly quoted by religious and secular media alike. St Teresa of Avila once exclaimed, “God preserve us from serious saints!” Pope Francis demonstrates in word and action what it means to be a Catholic, gives us cause to smile, but also offers us God’s precious gift of laughter.

In the two months in which Francis has occupied the Chair of Peter (but not the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace), he has shown a wonderful command of language. He does not use the often incomprehensible translated-from-the-Latin-and-then-from-the-Italian ‘Vaticanese’, so far removed from the ups and downs of our own lives. His are the simple, direct, human words of a priest who talks to his people as well as preaches to them, a priest who has shared the hardships of his parishioners and has fought for justice alongside their misery. Pope Francis imitates the advice of St Francis of Assisi, who said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.” He speaks from the heart, with urgency, spontaneity and complete belief in the message he proclaims.

The Pope succeeds, almost daily, in saying something which writers and journalists across the world would wish they had thought of and didn’t. If an expression does not exist, he makes it up – and so we have people who, in their vanity, believe themselves to be “a winner of the ‘Nobel Prize for Holiness’”. We hear of “the tragedy of the isolated conscience”, of “part-time Christians” and of “a healthy spiritual craziness”. He also tells us that unless we find joy in our faith, our faces become “like pickled peppers”!

“If we keep this joy to ourselves it will make us sick in the end, our hearts will grow old and wrinkled and our faces will no longer transmit that great joy, but only nostalgia and melancholy, which is not healthy. Sometimes these melancholy Christians faces have more in common with pickled peppers than the joy of having a beautiful life. Joy cannot be held at heel: it must be let go. Joy is a pilgrim virtue. It is a gift that walks, walks on the path of life that walks with Jesus: preaching, proclaiming Jesus, proclaiming joy, lengthens and widens that path.”

Pope Francis offers daily Mass in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where he has chosen to live in order to have direct access to people who have not passed through the filter of Vatican officials. Some of his congregation might be dignitaries, but he has also invited the Vatican gardeners, domestic workers and police, the Swiss Guard and Vatican Radio employees. Photographs show him sitting in the back of the chapel, quietly and privately praying before and after Mass in the midst of ordinary people. His homily, broadcast on YouTube, lasts for one or two minutes and is in profoundly simple, language which anybody can understand. Suddenly it is a very meaningful exercise to include the Pope’s daily homily in one’s daily routine because, regardless of busy-ness, his words are so ‘short, sweet and simple’ that they easily inspire and give life to the most pressurised day. In preaching on the Gospel of the day, sharing the same passage that the Church proclaims throughout the world, he makes it alive and relevant. In order to address the world, Pope Francis is not limited to Wednesday’s General Audience or to Sunday’s Angelus or Regina Coeli message: instead, he uses the ordinary daily Mass – and his words are heard.

Religious and secular media alike comment on Pope Francis’ simplicity and approachability. Instead of staying at a distance, he is a shepherd in the midst of the flock, or, as he himself picturesquely described a good shepherd, “smelling like the sheep”. Within his first few minutes as Pope, he asked the world to pray for him so that he could pray for them. He broke away from established protocol, walking amongst the crowds, delighting them and probably scaring the Vatican’s security personnel. He reaches out to babies, the sick and the disabled, autographed a child’s plaster cast, made a plate of jam sandwiches for the tired Swiss Guard on duty outside his rooms and released a cage-full of doves presented as he travelled around St Peter’s Square in the Popemobile.

Continuity is, of course, a vital aspect of Pope Francis’ ministry. He is not operating in a vacuum: 2000 years of responsibility, experience and wisdom guiding him as he cares for 2 billion Catholics across the world. Jesus told St Peter to care for and feed his lambs and sheep, meaning that Peter and his successors were not to lead a comfortable life, concerned only about tidy issues and non-problematic people. Instead Peter was search out the ‘least, the last and the lost’, bringing home the strays even to the extent of carrying them on his shoulders. The Apostles’ successors were to be ready and willing ‘to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty’ in their ministry. Generous service is more important than impeccable rubrics.

As Pope, Francis is already a courageously outspoken advocate for the poor, following his practice in his native Argentina. When the clothing factory collapsed in Bangladesh, he declared, "Living on €38 (£32) a month - that was the pay of these people who died... is called slave labour." He added, "I think of how many, and not just young people, are unemployed, many times due to a purely economic conception of society, which seeks selfish profit, beyond the parameters of social justice." Even Al Jazeera, the news agency which focuses on the Arabic and Islamic world, quoted him saying, "Not paying a just wage, not giving work, only because one is looking at the bottom line, at the budget of the company, seeking only profit - that is against God".

Tenderness and service are emerging as hallmarks of Francis’ papacy. We saw wash and kiss the feet of twelve young offenders on Maundy Thursday. Oddly enough, some sources have criticised him for this, saying that it should have been the responsibility of “someone else”. Yet if leadership is not from the top, where is the role model? An Indian proverb says that “a fish rots from the head down”. In other words, when there is good example and good management at the top, those lower down in the pecking order are filled with hope, enthusiasm, loyalty and commitment.

Of course Pope Francis challenges those who prefer a less simple lifestyle. A cartoon which emerged shortly after his election shows two cardinals demanding, "What's the story? You pay your own hotel bill. You travel on the bus and you chose to wear a cross not made of gold?" Confused, the Pope raises his hands. "Maybe I misunderstood... I was told that I am the successor of a poor fisherman from Galilee and not of the Roman emperor..."

That, perhaps, says it all, doesn’t it?