Call it “The Hard Way of Pope Francis.” Here are three major challenges of Pope Francis that I expect hit raw nerves in more Americans than just me.
1. At all costs, follow Christ crucified.
He came right out of the box with this one, in his first Mass after becoming Pope, saying that without Christ we are no more than a “pitiful NGO” adding:
“When we build without the Cross, when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.”
After that, he has returned to the cross again and again in his preaching, perhaps in the most developed way at the day of prayer and fasting for Syria:
“My Christian faith urges me to look to the Cross. How I wish that all men and women of good will would look to the Cross if only for a moment! There, we can see God’s reply: violence is not answered with violence, death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue, and peace is spoken.”
We might as well admit it: Americans are not people of the cross. Our arguments for everything from the Atomic Bomb to abortion could be summed up: “I must not suffer, whatever the cost to others.”
Pope Francis points out that this attitude is disastrous.
“When man thinks only of himself, of his own interests and places himself in the center, when he permits himself to be captivated by the idols of dominion and power, when he puts himself in God’s place, then all relationships are broken and everything is ruined; then the door opens to violence, indifference, and conflict.”
Of course this makes us extremely uncomfortable. Turning the other cheek is fine when it means “This Lent I will not answer back to that negative co-worker.” When it means sustaining a significant national loss or changing our whole life’s direction, that’s another matter.
Principles we deploy in extreme cases have a way of becoming a way of life. Once we embraced the principle “I must not suffer, whatever the cost to others,” a new principle quickly followed: “I must never be uncomfortable or bored, whatever the cost to myself.”
Which leads us to a second Francis theme …
2. Stop living for money.
Pope Francis has said again and again that the love of money is the definitive, destructive faith of our time. He voiced this theme movingly at his Sunday Mass in Sardinia, but he was edgier at his private Mass on Friday:
“No one can escape with the money,” he said. “The devil always takes this path of temptation: wealth, to feel self-sufficient; vanity, to feel important , and , in the end, pride: Pride is his language.”
But he went into most depth on the theme in an address to ambassadors on May 16, tying our love of money to our great unhappiness:
“Certain pathologies are increasing, with their psychological consequences; fear and desperation grip the hearts of many people, even in the so-called rich countries; the joy of life is diminishing; indecency and violence are on the rise; poverty is becoming more and more evident.”
A typical cycle goes like this: We restlessly seek to end every discomfort and boredom in our lives. It doesn’t work, so we buy more and more things to titillate and distract us. Soon we have grown addicted to shiny new me-gifts.
We ditch savings for consumption and our biggest debt expenditure each month is no longer mortgage but MasterCard. We ditch “family values” and make pornography one of the biggest segments of the entertainment industry in America. We ditch human rights and give China most favored nation status so the Walmart shelves won’t be bare.
And then, living in the lap of borrowed luxury, we find we can’t help the poor as much as we would want to.
“Money has to serve, not to rule!” said Pope Francis. “The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but the Pope has the duty, in Christ’s name, to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them, to promote them.”
Living as the Pope suggests is no small thing. Tithing won’t do it (though it’s a start). We would have to forgo the trinkets and gadgets we consider a necessity and start offering old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness necessities to others.
3. Be more maternal and less paternalistic.
Along with Christ crucified, Pope Francis has put Mary at the center of his pontificate from his first morning visit to St. Mary Major to his upcoming consecration of the world to the Immaculate Heart.
In his recent Wednesday catechesis about motherhood and the Church, he made his interest in Mary and the Church explicit.
“Both the Church and the Virgin Mary are mothers; what is said of the Church can also be said of Our Lady and what is said of Our Lady can also be said of the Church! … We all participate in the Church’s maternity, so that the light of Christ reaches the ends of the earth.”
What does a mother do?
“A mother doesn’t limit herself to give life, but with great care she helps her children to grow. She gives them milk, nourishes them, teaches them the way of life, always accompanies them with her attentions, with her affection, with her love, also when they are grown up. And in this she also knows how to correct, to forgive, to understand; she knows how to be close in sickness, in suffering.”
This, once again, rubs against the grain of 21st century America.
We love being paternalistic. We hate being maternal. Lots of people want to be the 9-to-5 provider; far fewer want to be a mom. We like to give advice; we don’t like to give time. We like to command; we don’t like to accompany.
In America, if you’re for preventing motherhood through abortion or sterilization, you’re for “women’s rights.” If you’re for preserving and promoting motherhood, you are engaged in a “war on women.”
We Catholics are not immune. Evangelizing with charity to us means saying “I love you, but you’re wrong and I’m right,” instead of just saying, “You’re wrong and I’m right.”
We evangelize like a dad standing over his son and telling him why his skinned knee is not that big a deal. Pope Francis wants us to evangelize like a mom, embracing her son, saying how sorry we are that it hurts and offering a Band-Aid.
As my friend Dr. Edward Mulholland points out, no mother introduces her son as “this is my son, the drug addict.” Likewise, no mother looks at her son and says to herself, “homosexual.” She always says “son.” The Pope wants us to be Mother Church to the world.
That’s why I call it the Hard Way of Pope Francis.
To follow it means to go from suffering-averse to cross-centered; from profligate spending to budgeted generosity; from “father knows best” to “mother is here.” It can be done, but it can’t be done painlessly. More than that, it has to be done. As Pope Francis himself summed it up in Rio:
“With these two things you have the action plan: the Beatitudes and Matthew 25. You do not need to read anything else.”
To remind you: The Beatitudes say to be poor, misused and meek, and Matthew 25 says you’ll go to hell if you don’t (and heaven if you do!).
If it seems like too much, it is. Pope Francis provided a clue to where he gets his own staying power when he shared his daily prayer routine in his interview with America magazine:
“I pray the breviary every morning. I like to pray with the psalms. Then, later, I celebrate Mass. I pray the Rosary. … In the evening then, between seven and eight o’clock, I stay in front of the Blessed Sacrament for an hour in adoration.”
The hard way of Pope Francis starts there.