Monday, 2 September 2013

What you see is what you get

“What you see is what you get.” A surprising number of analysts, officially and otherwise, have attempted to authoritatively examine every thought, word and deed of Pope Francis since his election to the papacy on 13 March. Suddenly everybody has something to say as he comments on a wide range of issues, inspiring many people across the world to re-think their stance, especially in the public arena.

A major Catholic media company, one of whose Directors dismissed social justice concerns as “irrelevant” now discovers that, if it is to report authentically on the various activities and words of Pope Francis, it is no longer able to duck the issue of the Church’s social teaching. After all, he is proclaiming it from the rooftops through his example and through what he says. At first, this same media organisation attempted to interpret “what the Holy Father really said”, as if he were ‘the new kid on the block’, acclimatising himself to his new role and responsibilities. Now its sincerely committed Catholic staff are in the same boat as the rest of the world in recognising that Pope Francis is succeeding in teaching old truths in a new way which demands careful and attentive listening.

Some observers are deeply suspicious of the Jesuits for reasons known only to themselves. Knowing that the Pope is a Jesuit, they declare that there is a ‘hidden agenda’ which will soon become public and show the world that it was the helpless victim of some dark plot. Such onlookers seem to forget that Francis is, as a Jesuit, committed to be ‘a man for others’, to ‘seek God in all things’ and to ‘help souls’.

At the other extreme are analysts who appear to be expecting Francis to wave some sort of magic wand of liberalism and suddenly approve of abortion, gay marriage, women priests, euthanasia and a list of other topical issues. Papal assent would, we are assured, bring the Catholic Church into the 21st century and recognise the apparently cherished dreams of an anonymous ‘vast majority’ of Catholics.

Journalists of religious and secular media pounced on the press conference following World Youth Day and commented on Francis’ use of the word ‘gay’ and his question, “Who am I to judge?” Their colleagues at both ends of the spectrum reflected on what he was ‘really saying’ about women priests and the role of women in the Church, coming up with completely different conclusions drawn from the same text. Others have observed that, in his various homilies and addresses, the most frequently used words are associated with justice, poverty, joy and mercy and have renamed him ‘The Pope of the poor’ and ‘the Pope of mercy’.

Pope Francis has, on several occasions, spoken of economic concerns, for transparency, honesty and fair trade in all business activities. This has caused its own ripples of anxiety. Whereas some accuse him of being a neo-Communist and a Liberation Theologian, others accuse him of putting socialism and capitalism against each other without offering any concrete solutions. Are economists and those involved in business in danger of forgetting that the role of a leader is to inspire passion for the mission and to show that it is worth doing? The Pope is holding up the values: it is up to them to work out how to put those principles into operation in their own environment. As a former leader of the IBM Executive School commented, “a worthwhile mission, properly articulated, galvanizes ordinary people with extraordinary, even explosive, results.” Would it not transform the world if those involved in economics and business were to come up with a new person-centred model which guaranteed justice and fair play for all? Rather than accuse the Pope of being a capitalist or a socialist, might he simply be an inspirational leader?

Between the extremes is a vast multitude of people who feel invigorated and interested to hear what Francis has to say and are open to listen. Somehow he has touched many hearts far beyond the Catholic community. Fr Eustace Sequeira SJ commented, “Through Twitter, I have been following the people who have been displaying their love for him, and most of them have not had much to do with the Church, nor may be interested in faith questions, but that one moment of coming in contact with the ‘love’ that the Church has and needs to offer those who may never expect it from us, is what has been my greatest discovery.”

St Bernard wrote, “I love because I love; I love that I may love.” Interestingly, some of the events associated with World Youth Day attracted more attention than others. Few journalists appear to have shown much interest in the Pope’s visit to Aparecida and his address to the assembled bishops of Latin America (CELAM). If anybody wanted to see the manifesto for the current papacy, there it is, beautifully expressed, with stunning clarity and, in a word, declaring that the Church has travelled thus far and it is now time to keep on going.

Reams of commentary have accompanied Pope Francis since the moment when he stepped out onto the balcony of St Peter’s and asked the vast crowd to pray for him. It seems that, on many occasions, many analysts have overlooked the fact that he is a human being with one head, two arms and two legs (and one lung!). However great the expectations, he cannot work miracles. Just like any of us, he can only do his level best to respond to an extraordinarily complex responsibility which he had not sought.

Many who have wondered whether or not Pope Francis has some nefarious plans in store have only to look at his actions in Buenos Aires to realise that his consistency also shows authenticity. If he is showing an impressive simplicity, humility and warmth now, it is only because of many years of preparation, blood, sweat and tears. Compassion does not appear from nowhere. A charlatan does not inspire love.

It is interesting to see that, when Francis was first elected, the Jesuits were excited, but also withheld judgement. “He’s received the training. Now let us see him put it into practice”, one American Jesuit wryly remarked. Several weeks later, on the Feast of St Ignatius, Francis became the first Pope in history to share the occasion with the Jesuits at the church of the Gesù in Rome. Afterwards, the Jesuit Superior General, Fr Adolfo Nicolás, wrote, “The truth is that everything was so simple and natural that it is hard to say anything... Our experience was similar to that of many who have already met Pope Francis. We can say, in sync with the youth of Río de Janeiro “we have seen and heard our brother Francis, and we feel closer to our Lord Jesus and to his successor Peter.”

Perhaps that is the secret to all that has been achieved thus far in Francis’ papacy: a fresh way of expressing familiar truths and values, good communication and good leadership – and authenticity. People feel that they already know him. “What you see is what you get.”