My friends in Rome tell me that Pope Francis is drawing about four times as many people to the Vatican as did both Pope Emeritus Benedict and Bl. John Paul II. Pope Francis has certainly caught the world’s attention, and whether he is being quoted correctly or not, people are showing up to listen.
My own hunch is that many of the people are ones who have not felt connected to the Church in a while. Why? I think that the Holy Father is witnessing a non-defensive Christianity, and people find this extremely appealing and attractive, especially younger people. Whether through his pastoral phone calls, his choice not to reside in the papal apartments, forswearing security measures and wading into crowds or sitting down with a prominent atheist for a newspaper interview, Pope Francis is demonstrating a Christianity secure in itself and comfortable both in its own skin and in the world. He is authentic— and authenticity attracts.
The Pope has himself said that he is a “son of the Church.” He has not changed doctrine; he thinks with the mind of the Church. But he also demonstrates that he is not afraid to encounter the world, he is not afraid to be creative and that he recognizes the beauty of the world and of people while also not being naïve to sin and human weakness.
The authenticity of Pope Francis can only be born of faith, humility and contact with the poor. When asked how he would define himself, Pope Francis responded with, “I am a sinner… a sinner upon whom the gaze of Christ has fallen.” What beautiful words! And words that immediately connected the Pope with every other single person on the face of the earth! We are all sinners upon whom the gaze and mercy of God has fallen.
A telling picture I have seen of then Cardinal Bergoglio was a random photo taken of him sitting, obviously tired and weary, on either a bus or train. The story has been told of how he would take public transportation whenever possible during his time in Argentina – demonstrating both his chosen simplicity of life and his need for being with ordinary people. If other popes have spoken of the “school of prayer” or the “school of the family,” Pope Francis has truly learned and knows the lessons and wisdom that can only be acquired from the “school of the poor.” Wisdom acquired from the school of the poor cannot be faked nor pretended. It is authentic, and it speaks directly to peoples’ hearts.
I think that it is also of import that Pope Francis is of an older generation and living a non-defensive Christianity. This should not be underestimated. I think Pope Emeritus Benedict also lived a non-defensive Christianity but, honestly, too many factors and false perceptions prevented this message from getting out. I think that time and history will demonstrate this component of Pope Benedict’s papacy. Certainly, St. John Paul II proclaimed the goodness of God and the world but for most young people of today their first memory of him is rooted not in the athletic hiker and skier pope but in the time of his physical decline and ill health.
Pope Francis is the first pope of our era who was not present at the Second Vatican Council.
I have spent my priesthood working with young people and one thing I have found that truly turns young people off and shuts their ears is when older generations speak as if theirs was the greatest generation— or— when older generations (because the world may be changing in ways they did not expect) act as if the world is coming to an end! Neither perspective is true and both demonstrate an inherent narcissism. By living a non-defensive Christianity, Pope Francis (a man in his later seventies) is doing neither, and I think that young people are picking up on it.
Might the question of why young adults are not present in our churches be partly because these two forms of our own narcissism leave them no room in our church pews? Honestly, why would a young person want to go to a place where either he or she is reminded that his/her generation does not measure up or that there is no future and that everything is coming to an end? Both are denials of the possibility of youth and are ways of telling younger generations (in subtle and not so subtle ways), “you don’t really matter.”
Pope Francis is not saying that. He is saying quite the opposite. He is saying, “You do matter.” By living a non-defensive Christianity, Pope Francis is demonstrating a Christianity of hope and a faith that is certainly aware of the beauty and gift of the past but also open to the possibility of the future. He is demonstrating a profound recognition of the dignity and gift of all generations.
People are showing up to listen for a reason.
(Image credit: © Antoine Mekary/ALETEIA)