Saint Paul writes at various points in his letters about the joys and the burdens of the pastoral office, and how difficult it was for him to keep everyone happy as he founded churches and tended to their needs from afar. At one point he wrote: “I have become all things to all people, so that I might save some…” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
Something of the same can be said about Pope Francis. He is about to conclude what must be an exhausting journey from Cuba, and through three major American cities, with non-stop visits, talks, Masses, hand-waving all in a world-wide media spotlight. This is the modern papacy, and this is yet another manifestation of what our Lord commanded Saint Peter in Luke’s Gospel: “you must strengthen your brethren.”
Pope Francis does have the impossible job of becoming all things to all people, to try and at least save some. To put it another way, he is supposed to somehow intercept and then reflect back to the world all the various expectations and wants that are being thrown in his direction.
The conservatives are disappointed because so far he has said very little on this trip about pro-life causes, very little about religious freedom, virtually nothing about same sex marriage. Those on the left are cheering the fact that he’s apparently picked all of their causes to champion. But many of the same people are skipping over what he said about the primacy of communion, dialogue, and also a faith in the transcendent God who guides our world.
Personally, I have found many of his speeches and talks, so far, to be too focused on international bureaucratic solutions to problems and too light on preaching the foundational principles that are necessary to unite our human family. Dialogue is great, but, to what end? Is not Christ the way, the truth, and the life? Isn’t the unity of the human family to be achieved in him alone? Is Pope Francis not the Vicar of Christ and therefore should he not be presenting an ardent case for why Christianity is the answer? He speaks too much like a spiritual leader of a modern blend of various religious ideals and not like the one whose job it is to guard the Deposit of Apostolic Faith. Jesus did not call people to embrace dialogue, he called them to embrace himself. There is a vast difference.
But I have to remind myself that in this day and age, the message of salvation that is required must be preached paradoxically in its entirety and at the same time in little pieces, one little stage and platform at a time. And no matter what the poor man says on one podium, someone in the world (and these days we really are talking about the entire world as his parish) is not going to like it. It will never be enough.
His homily at Madison Square Garden was a gentle and insightful reflection on the presence of God in the big city, and was therefore a beautiful summons to all the inhabitants of our urban areas to turn toward one another in love, rather than retreating into the common isolationism of city life. Nicely done.
His homily at the Cathedral Basilica in Philadelphia was also an excellent summons to action. “What about you?” was his central focus- what role will each of us play in the building up of the Kingdom of God in a rapidly changing society, and in a Church whose structures are always shifting to meet new needs? Nicely done.
But I am only one person to keep happy, and frankly, I do not count for much. I do not envy his position at all.
One thing is for sure: he’s caught people’s attention. And he’s brought about sentiments of joy, hope, enthusiasm, renewal, and community. He’s brought God right smack into the middle of an American public square and conversation that too often wants to pretend (at least on an official level) that religion is just a private thing. Just when everyone has written off the Catholic Church, somehow we just keep re-emerging with new intensity and fervor.
I am in Philadelphia right now, awaiting the start of the Festival of Families this afternoon, awaiting the enormous papal Mass coming tomorrow on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. And on every corner there is ample evidence that religion is NOT a private matter, because the entire city has altered its life and routine because of this visit.
And interestingly enough, almost no one I have talked to seems to mind. Everyone’s just amazed that he’s here, and it’s a really friendly place to be right now.
All this because of the man who has, in many ways, become all things to all people and is clearly God’s instrument. I often say that the papacy is always what it needs to be for the needs of the Church and the world in the given moment. By the very finite nature of the world in which we live, it will not be perfect. For all that it seeks to embrace, it will by nature leave things out.
For the purposes of today, anyway, it is probably enough that the world is just captivated by him. Francis is not an end in himself, and he is clearly aware of this fact. He is an instrument to turn the gaze of the world heavenward, even if an imperfect one. Only one person is all things to all people, and that is Christ himself.