Pope brings hope

Pope Francis has been portrayed in some secular magazines as a celebrity, and a mythical personality. Unfortunately this myth can be manipulated, marketed and monetised.

Mar 27, 2014

By Andrew Hamilton, Eureka Street
Pope Francis has been portrayed in some secular magazines as a celebrity, and a mythical personality. Unfortunately this myth can be manipulated, marketed and monetised.

It is difficult to give an accounting for celebrities. They demand absolutes: each one is utterly new; what they replace is out of date. But merely popping their balloon also misses what in them attracts popular attention.

So it is with evaluating what is distinctive about Pope Francis and what he has already contributed to the Catholic Church. It is hard to move beyond such self-evident banalities as that he takes his Catholic doctrine and ethical teaching seriously, that he is approachable, that he is not a liberal theologian, and that he is free in his approach to security and liturgy.

More thoughtful analyses have explored opposites. His distinctive contribution is said to have lain not in substance but in style, not in theological exploration but in pastoral reach, and not to have touched the essentials of faith but accidentals.

It may be more helpful to explore what Pope Francis transparently shares with previous popes, namely the strength of the faith in Christ that animates them all, and seek to identify his distinctive perspective.

At the core of Christian faith is the conviction that in Christ, God has joined humanity, and that the Incarnation changes the world. The Christmas story, which brings together the immensity of God and the vulnerability of the newborn child, embodies this.

The belief that God has joined us in a human life, that Christ is divine and human, can be imagined in two ways. The first perspective emphasises the contrast between the greatness of God and the nothingness of humanity, and so focuses on the value that God adds in Christ.

When we see the world from this perspective we naturally imagine boundaries between the Church and the world outside, Christians and non-believers, church teaching and secular wisdom. We emphasise the sacredness of language, ministry and ritual in liturgy as bearers of transcendence. The business of the church is to draw others into its holiness.

The second perspective on the Incarnation is one of wonder that in Christ, humanity with its sinfulness and weakness could be intimately linked to God. That a human being can be united to God shows the value that God sees and loves in each human being and in the world.

From this perspective God reaches out to the whole world, emphasising the humanity Christians share with others. In liturgy the preciousness of apparently ordinary people, words and household utensils is revealed when illuminated in prayer. The business of the Church is to go out to people embodying God’s love for them.

These imaginative perspectives are different but complementary. Each can be woven into a theology that brings together the key Christian themes of creation, sin, grace, salvation through Christ, church and sacraments.

The way in which Pope Francis acts and speaks suggests that he sees the world from the second perspective. He instinctively looks for connections with people inside and outside the Catholic Church rather than differences. So he lives in a guest house, dresses simply, washes the feet of a Muslim woman on Holy Thursday, at Lampedusa does penance for the deaths of asylum seekers at an altar constructed from the wood of their boats, goes to slums as well as churches, does unconstrained interviews with atheists, and consistently uses popular idiom to speak to people about Christ. He surprises by testing boundaries on behalf of the excluded.

In this perspective and in Francis’ gestures, going out compassionately to the excluded, whether they be prisoners, asylum seekers or slum dwellers embodies most strikingly the value of each human being whom God loves.

Francis has been so attractive because the vision of a church that would attract people to its holiness by marking out boundaries had become incredible. The church of sexual abuse, of internal squabbling and of prissiness simply did not look holy. The air had grown foetid. But many people still looked to churches to nurture the possibility that they might ultimately be loveable and valued in all their weakness. Francis has encouraged that hope.

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