14th Mar 2013

A Pope to Change the World: Francis and the Future

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

In St. Peter’s Square, there was silence! Pope Francis finally came out following the pregnant anticipation of the white smoke billowing from the smokestack above St. Peter’s Basilica, and he seemed to be stunned silent. People wondered: Wasn’t the “room of tears,” which every media talking head had talked about, supposed to take care of that? Was he too shy to be pope? Would we have to tread lightly around this one?

But all of these concerns melted away when our new Holy Father spoke to us for the first time.

Standing in the Square, I thought two things about the new pope’s opening remarks, his request for prayers, and his physical bow toward the crowd: This is a penitential act. This is an act of self-surrender, that is, submission to the will of God.

The penitential act may just be what the world needed from Pope Francis on Day One. After a year of talk in the United States and elsewhere about the threat of secularism, his bow, his plea for prayer, was almost an Act of Contrition on behalf of the Church, her institution as well as her people. If the sexual revolution has trumped the true concept of freedom among the ruling class of the United States, it hasn’t happened without Catholics succumbing to this trend, too. We need to begin again in humility, asking pardon for our sins, and learning and proposing the teachings of the Church on the fullness of human life, the complementarity of man and woman, and the realization that true and lasting freedom is found only in surrender to God’s will.

The appropriate response to Wednesday night’s joyful proclamation “Habemus Papam” is, in retrospect, “of course.” A Latin American with European roots. A Jesuit with ties to one of the vibrant lay movements of the Church. A defender of all life, in all its stages. An intellectual of simplicity with a heart for the poor. A gentle voice for an age that needs a shepherd. Standing in the square as I was, it was hard not to see what seemed like the world, looking for a father, to help us to our heavenly, merciful Father.

Pope Benedict was a loving shepherd whose papacy sought to bring us closer to Jesus through his books, his words, his life. Even at the end, stepping aside to live his life in prayer with Christ, he modeled the walk we’re invited on, all in our different vocations, all led by different Divine calls. But the media optics, as it were, would always be a barrier for some, an obstacle for evangelization. For some hostile commentators, offensive and misleading caricatures such as “Pope Nazi” and “God’s Rottweiler” helped push away from this shepherd the very people who had been most hurt by the Church, confused by the Church, and remote from the Church.

As I stood in St. Peter’s Square Wednesday night in the cold and the rain, there was a sense of the supernatural. It was hard to miss that the Holy Spirit is a symbol of peace, that it was that the Holy Spirit who would guide the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel voting, and here peace seemed to have overtaken the crowd. No frustration or anger was evident even as umbrellas obstructed views for many.

Papa Francesco!” The Romans have been going around and about their daily work, marveling at our new pontiff. Americans — many of them not Catholic — are e-mailing me: “I love this pope!”

There is a message about the power — the ministry — of presence in Pope Francis’ dramatic appearance Wednesday, introducing himself as the Bishop of Rome to the Diocese of Rome. There is a message about communion in his request that all gathered pray for him. What a welcome he offered to the world to join the Catholic Church when he said: “Let us pray for one another. Let us pray for the whole world that there be a great brotherhood.”

History may show the entrance of Pope Francis on the stage to be the great opening of a door that the Catholic Church needed — to welcome people back, to bring people in, to draw people nearer to the Christ to whom Pope Benedict spent his pontificate reintroducing us.

In recent days, I frequently have been asked about Cardinal Timothy Dolan and the need for a big personality as pope. As I’ve remarked, I think there is a great poverty in the way the world sees the archbishop of New York, who may not be as quiet as our new pope but has a depth of prayer the world doesn’t understand. A pope who begins asking us to pray for him just may help us understand that kind of deep interior life.

Church folk have been talking for years now about a New Evangelization — a time of renewal, reform, and reintroduction of the faith to the people who profess to be Catholic but perhaps never learned what that truly means, perhaps have fallen away, perhaps have been hurt. To do that, you need a shepherd who speaks firmly but gently, whose voice draws you into something truly beautiful. In our harsh age, the gentle, humble voice the world heard from St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday night may just be the one to help make the difference, particularly as our new pope looked out to the tens of thousands of us gathered there and reminded us of our role in the Church as the body of Christ.

My friend George Weigel has an attractive, accessible, rich book in his recent Evangelical Catholicism, one anyone who wants to be truly Catholic ought to read (along with the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church). He says that Evangelical Catholics are men and women who, having shared the great grace of Baptism and having been appropriately catechized into “the mysteries,” understand, appreciate, and live the biblical truth of Christian vocation as given by St. Paul: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord and there are a varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:5-7).

See, there is that Holy Spirit again. Working not only with the bishops when their hearts and minds are open, stretched out to the will of God in prayer, but with all the faithful.

Weigel further explains that:

Evangelical Catholicism creates its own culture. Because friendship with the Lord Jesus shapes every aspect of a Christian’s life, that friendship is culture-forming; those who are living in friendship with the Risen Lord in the communion of the Church speak a distinctive language (in which, to take two examples, “obedience” and “forgiveness” have richer and deeper meanings than in postmodern culture.) They live according to a distinctive temporal rhythm (in which, to take but one example, Sunday is not simply a day on which shopping malls close earlier). They celebrate unique rituals, observe a unique set of laws, cherish and tell a unique set of stories, and perceive life (and death) against a unique horizon.

That friendship with the Lord is what Pope Benedict left the papal stage talking to the world about. When he spoke to Catholics from the Americas in December, he warned us that if we are not living in daily encounter with Christ, we are not being who we say we are, and we will never share the great gift of faith we have, as we are mandated to by Christ in the Gospels.

These past days in Rome, I’ve watched pilgrims, tourists, wanderers, and media look with interest to a Church of heritage, history, and mystery. What they saw last night was something new: An American who might heal wounds of division, particularly within the Church that, certainly in the Americas, has suffered and caused suffering by false Right-Left divides. The message of the conclave of 2013 may just be this: That Catholics, in every vocation and every walk of life, need to radically show the world with our words, our presence, and our witness that what is inside St. Peter’s Basilica — and inside every tabernacle of the world — is the answer to our every desire and need.

On Thursday in Rome, “Papa Francesco!” seems to be the Roman greeting as cashiers, hotel front-desk clerks, and taxi drivers go about their work. We misunderstand words like “humility” and “peace.” We misunderstand St. Francis. These are not just “nice” sentiments, as if out of Disney, but radical calls and witness.

Pope Francis begins to help the world to understand again — with a simple prayer and wish for a rest as we begin again, to purify our hearts and help redeem the world.

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.)