In recent decades, public interest in what a pope has to say has rarely gone beyond Catholic circles, but recent statements and interviews with Pope Francis have been the subject of great interest and comment outside of the Catholic world.
Why? I think this is because he truly is acting and speaking in a powerful, new way. Now to be clear, despite what you may have read in the press, Pope Francis is not changing Catholic doctrinal or moral teachings. But I do think that his broad popular appeal is because of the authenticity of his witness: he lives what he preaches.
As the Holy Father, he continues to live, in every way possible, the simple and humble life that he lived as a bishop in Argentina (although he can no longer take the bus to work within the Vatican). And he has made it a priority to reach out to the poor and the marginalized, to those who are most in need of the love of Christ. His first papal visit this summer was to travel to the Italian island of Lampedusa, off the coast of North Africa, where so many African immigrants have drowned trying to cross over to Italy. He did so to draw attention to the plight of immigrants, to pray with them and to show them his solidarity and that of the Church.
This past Holy Thursday, instead of being at St. Peter’s Basilica, he went to a Rome juvenile detention center to celebrate the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. It was there that he washed the feet of twelve young men and women, not all of whom were Catholics or Christians, as a sign to them of how much Christ and his Church love them and care for them as persons, however lost or abandoned or rejected they might be or feel.
This past July, a number of Alaskan youth had the chance to encounter Pope Francis in Rio de Janeiro. It was there that Pope Francis went to a drug rehab center and to the slums. To those with addictions he said, “We must hold the hand of the one in need, of the one who has fallen into the darkness of dependency perhaps without knowing how, and we must say to him or her: You can get up, you can stand up. It is difficult, but it is possible if you want to.” And in the slums, Pope Francis denounced corruption while walking the streets in the rain and said, “We must never allow the throwaway culture to enter our hearts because we are brothers and sisters. No one is disposable! Let us remember this: Only when we are able to share do we become truly rich.”
Speaking as a shepherd, Pope Francis said in last week’s interview, “ I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds… And you have to start from the ground up.”
He rightly insists that we never lose sight of the human being, so often reduced to a label or a epithet. In the interview Pope Francis said, “ A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.”
This is, of course, the teaching of the Gospel and the teaching of the Church, but we must strive, whether we are followers of Jesus or of another faith or of no religious belief, to see each other as human beings, as companions on this journey of life. This does not mean that we are always going to agree, but Pope Francis has been reminding us that we are first and foremost brothers and sisters, members of one family, sons and daughters of a God who loves us.
Living in Juneau, I see and commend the many ways that we demonstrate as a community our love and concern for each other. And I know too that there are too many of our family members and neighbors who are suffering in some way, because of poverty, physical or mental disability, drug or alcohol addiction, imprisonment or discrimination. There is much that we can do and should do to improve the lives of the poor in Juneau and in our region. But as I reflect on the teaching and example of Pope Francis, I am reminded of how many opportunities I have, how many daily opportunities we all have to reach out to those who suffer so that they know how much they are truly loved and cared for.