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30th Jul 2013


Pope Francis Rocks Rio – and the World – With Blessed Continuity

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

“Christ’s open arms are a sign of his willingness to embrace all those who come to him, and his heart represents his immense love for everyone and for each of you.”

With these words, the pope pointed to the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer, perched high on the Corcovado mountain ledge overlooking Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The statue was the ever-present symbol of the pilgrimage of the last week, which joined millions on the ground with countless throughout the world praying and watching with receptivity and curiosity as hungry young Catholics witnessed to the universal Church alive with an ardor for knowing Christ and sharing the truth of the Gospel, nourished by the sacraments and teachings of the Catholic Church.

Who was the pope who talked about Jesus' open arms above? Pope Benedict XVI, in his message last fall urging young people from every continent to attend the 28th World Youth Day in Brazil, which concluded Sunday evening.

Pope Francis’s first trip back to the continent of his birth since the papal conclave that elected him pope to attend World Youth Day in Brazil was a blockbuster success, but it’s not the sign of rupture the conventional view seems to suggest and even hope for.  In fact, there’s a great continuity between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis in terms of what they are teaching and saying. It is the great gift of the pope emeritus, whose humility in stepping aside as pontiff made possible the Holy Spirit of renewal that Pope Francis is now able to shepherd and herald with a whole new energy, with his obviously different style and temperament.

Having never been dubbed “God’s Rottweiler,” Pope Francis, the first pope from the Americas, has doors open to him that Pope Benedict, the German former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had a much harder time getting anyone to answer. Even at 76, the new pope’s health affords him a physical endurance that makes baby blessing a worldwide spectator sport. Pope Benedict did, of course, frequently bless and yes, even kiss babies, too. With Pope Francis it is the same act, the same love and witness as before — just a different photo; a compelling photo, of course, in this visual age in which we live, one that might just serve as an invitation to learn more about just what it is the Church teaches.

Pope Benedict poured his papacy into catechesis — reteaching the faith, with its blesseds and saints, including women doctors of the Church, to people who may have never been taught about St. Catherine of Siena and St. Hildegard of Bingen. He wrote three books and countless homilies and other talks to help us encounter Christ, so that we may come to truly know Him. His pleading was more of a needed intellectual effort, even as he lovingly engaged the faithful and the world.

And he knew it wasn’t enough, even as he inaugurated a year of faith, seeking to bring peace to the unnecessary and erroneous ideological divides that caused harm in the Church in the years after the Second Vatican Council, literally, and re-issuing messages that Pope Paul VI had presented at the end of the Second Vatican Council, that weren’t fully communicated or received during the chaos of the time. Needless to say, at the opening of a Year of Faith, despite the urgency of the moment, the need for direction and renewal, these things didn’t make the kinds of headlines that get the world talking.

Minds had been made up about Pope Benedict. The story had largely been written about him, the narrative set: “Hard-line,” “conservative,” “traditionalist.” Something had to shake things up. Evil had settled into the culture, including within the Church; it’s not unheard of that Christians adapt to evil today, surrender to it, letting secularism and radical sexual revolutionary values feel quite comfortable in our midst, often rarely feeling threatened, never mind extinguished.

It was Pope Francis this past week in Rio who talked about the importance of having openness to being “surprised” by God. Although Pope Benedict had long been open about his own willingness to step aside should it be appropriate (as he discussed with journalist Peter Seewald in the book-length interview, The Light of the World), his discernment that it was God’s will that he resign the papacy — something unheard of in contemporary history — still had to be a bit of a surprise, a leap of faith, with implications for the present and future of the pontificate.

His move unsettled people. And there is a lesson there, as our only certainty is Christ’s covenant with us. The papacy is about more than a man: It’s about the Incarnation, the Cross, and the Resurrection. This pope is modeling how we might help people see how the Good News is plausibly relevant to a highly secularized culture.

In inviting young people to pilgrimage in Rio, Pope Benedict had written:

Many young people today seriously question whether life is something good, and have a hard time finding their way. More generally, however, young people look at the difficulties of our world and ask themselves: is there anything I can do? The light of faith illumines this darkness. It helps us to understand that every human life is priceless because each of us is the fruit of God’s love. God loves everyone, even those who have fallen away from him or disregard him. God waits patiently. Indeed, God gave his Son to die and rise again in order to free us radically from evil. Christ sent his disciples forth to bring this joyful message of salvation and new life to all people everywhere.

From his first Sunday as pope, Pope Francis has driven this message home, repeating again and again: God does not tire of granting forgiveness. Never tire of asking! Be healed, be reconciled to God, and share the joy of this encounter, this eternal encounter with the world!

And, yes, with the exclamation points.

This was the message of World Youth Day. This is the message of the recent encyclical, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis’s first, written so clearly with the pen of Pope Benedict. Where is our hope when so much of the world’s vision is obstructed? It’s in the Holy Spirit guiding these young people we saw this weekend ablaze with faith.

Speaking with his brother bishops from Latin America on Sunday after the 3.2-million-strong Mass on Rio’s Copacabana beach, Pope Francis revealed his Ignatian ways as he talked, as he tends to, about the devil. Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope in history, and we celebrate the feast day of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the order, this week (July 31). St. Ignatius is known for his missionary work and for his Spiritual Exercises, a devotional workbook of sorts for combating evil and living the life of true surrender to God’s will.

How can we know God’s will? How does spiritual combat work? In the broadest overview of St. Ignatius, it’s about knowing thyself, and how the devil works on you, and where God is, and how he can reach in and conquer evil in our hearts, just as he won us victory over death. Speaking to the bishops specifically on Sunday, Pope Francis said: “It is important to know where the evil spirit is afoot in order to aid our discernment. It is a not a matter of chasing after demons, but simply one of clear-sightedness and evangelical astuteness.”

Those demons creep into media coverage sometimes. The pope is trying to break us from this, too. In his comments in an 80-minute talk with reporters on the plane back to Rome from Rio, he answered questions freely, doing what he’s been doing by reintroducing mercy, reintroducing charity, and being transparent — as he and Pope Benedict have been, even about their daily prayers at times. Despite echoing the Catechism, as Pope Benedict XVI had, on homosexuality, Pope Francis’s responses to a question about a “gay lobby” at the Vatican was seen, again, as a rift. But in his “who am I to judge?,” in expressing his concern for digging through people’s lives to expose their every sin, was both a communication of Divine Mercy to the world listening, and a demonstration of media savvy. We can all quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church every day, but if women feel like we’re seeking to impose, not propose, if men feel like you’re judging, not loving … Christ’s Word may not be heard.  

As we remember God’s patience with us, we, too, must be patient with the media. It’s not as if Catholics in the public square have always been immaculate witnesses to Church teaching in recent decades!

During his closing reflection after praying the Stations of the Cross on the beach Friday night, Pope Francis told the young pilgrims that “our inconsistencies make Jesus suffer!” Have courage, he said again and again. And he then went straight into the heart of Lumen Fidei, into the very core of Trinitarian reality. The Cross has left us “a treasure that no one else can give: the certainty of the faithful love which God has for us.”

That’s Benedict. That’s the light of faith. That’s not the Gospel of Pope Francis invented in Rio or over Grappa one night in Rome.

During that Friday night reflection, Pope Francis offered a frank-but-tender talk in which he shepherded his audience through an examination of conscience, one meant for each of us individually but also for the Church as a whole:

[T]he Cross of Christ invites us also to allow ourselves to be smitten by his love, teaching us always to look upon others with mercy and tenderness, especially those who suffer, who are in need of help, who need a word or a concrete action; the Cross invites us to step outside ourselves to meet them and to extend a hand to them. How many times have we seen them in the Way of the Cross, how many times have they accompanied Jesus on the way to Calvary: Pilate, Simon of Cyrene, Mary, the women…?

Today I ask you: which of them do you want to be? Do you want to be like Pilate, who did not have the courage to go against the tide to save Jesus’ life, and instead washed his hands? Tell me: are you one of those who wash their hands, who feign ignorance and look the other way? Or are you like Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus to carry that heavy wood, or like Mary and the other women, who were not afraid to accompany Jesus all the way to the end, with love and tenderness?

And you, who do you want to be? Like Pilate? Like Simon? Like Mary? Jesus is looking at you now and is asking you: do you want to help me carry the Cross? Brothers and sisters, with all the strength of your youth, how will you respond to him?

As Pope Francis has warned us before, “You cannot dialogue with the prince of this world. This is clear.” We must be Christians! Live as though we believe!

“To make Christ known is the most precious gift that you can give others,” Pope Benedict wrote in his World Youth Day message. We can’t give Christ unless we live Christ, and living Christ starts in prayer and sacraments. This gift of Christ should be all-encompassing in our lives. “If we are truly in love with Christ and if we sense how much he loves us, our heart will ‘light up’ with a joy that spreads to everyone around us, Pope Francis said at the Shrine of our Lady of Aparecida. (He went on to quote Pope Benedict, as it happens.) They will see what’s different about us; they will see that we do not live according to the false freedom and fake love that culture all too often settle for, simply because people feel that is all we can expect.

If we live differently, live in Christ, people will encounter the hope of our lives, Christ. Hope is one of those words that is overused and abused, but this hope is real, thanks be to God, and in fact it is our only hope. Christ is our hope, and he shows us the way. If we choose to follow him, he will faithfully guide us, walk with us, and never leave us alone. Pope Francis went to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary at St. Mary Major Monday morning upon his return to Rome because the Mother of Christ surely knows the sorrow of our lives, and it is she who tenderly brings us to the singular Love who was made incarnate by her unconditional and faith-filled “yes.”

Last Tuesday, during World Youth Day coverage, an MSNBC anchor expressed deep concern for Pope Francis’s safety. His security detail appeared to be in some disorder as a wrong turn on the city streets of Rio resulted in a crowd of people swarming the pope in a silver Fiat, with the windows rolled down in eager expectation. What a difference from Holy Week, 2010, when, throughout the days, some of these same TV hosts wondered whether Pope Benedict would resign in disgrace that very day.

That spring, I was present for his own journey to Fatima, where Pope Benedict’s adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, in the very same place where the Blessed Mother had appeared, so very clearly had the effect of reinvigorating him. This is, indeed, a spiritual battle. Will we truly love, or are we content to be indifferent? Will we settle in the belief that God really isn’t asking much of us at all in response to His great gift of eternal life?

Or will we be true disciples of Christ who follow the words, witness, and pleas of these two holy fathers who, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are calling us to rebuild a civilization of love, a culture of life, a window into – and doors open to – Heaven?

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She is a director of Catholic Voices USA and blogs on Catholic things at K-Lo@Large.


(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)