Francis and a Risk of Madness

I recently took a few moments to read the much discussed conversation Pope Francis had with reporters on the plane home from World Youth Day. I came across his comments regarding concerns about his security and safety during the trip (an issue that prompted New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan to suggest that Francis needed to learn to be “handled” more):

Then we had problems with security theories: security here and there; there wasn’t an incident in the whole of Rio de Janeiro in these days, and everything was spontaneous. With less security, I was able to be with the people, to embrace and greet them, without armored cars. It’s the security of trusting people. It’s true that there is always the danger that there is a madman … alas, yes, that there is a madman who does something; but there is also the Lord! But, to make an armored space between the Bishop and the people is madness, and I prefer this madness: [to be] outside and run the risk of the other madness. I prefer this madness: outside. Closeness does good to all.

 And while I admit that there is some ambiguity in the translation, I’m struck by the pope’s vision: there’s a choice between risking the madness of an individual out to do him harm and the risk of allowing the madness of a wall between a bishop and his flock. It’s a particular vision that allows one to see choosing security over mission as madness, to see one’s one safety as less important than attending to those around him with love. And before we chance romanticizing these words, let us not forget that is wasn’t too long ago when a pope suffered from this outside madness—the risk for a pope is real.

While his words are specifically referencing a bishop’s relationship with the people, they can serve as a (frightening?) challenge to us, too. For I do not doubt that risks we face in our own lives are no less real and far too often no less dangerous. Francis warns of a madness that justifies all the ways in which we secure ourselves, our belongings, our futures while others go without. He warns of all the ways by which we distract ourselves from love, inoculating our attention from caring about those around us.

It’s a radical call, no doubt, and one that frightens even as it attracts. It’s a call to discipleship . . . a call to love as Christ loves. Graham Greene spoke of this love in The Power and the Glory:

It would be enough to scare us – God’s love. It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark. Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.

And we run. We are so adept at running. Adept at masking our madness in expediency, hiding our fear behind a rationale justified by voices everywhere we turn. Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan suggests that structures of distorted reason become reified over time so much so that to question the distortion can itself feel irrational—that sin becomes so integrated into our society and ourselves that we can no longer see it as sin. We can no longer see madness for what it is and therefore have increased difficulty (as if we need it) lovingly devoting ourselves to proclaiming good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom for prisoners and sight for the blind, setting the oppressed free—to proclaiming God’s kingdom in our words and actions.

What is more mad, to risk harm by lovingly immersing oneself in our fractured and bleeding community or to harden our hearts through safety? These words of the pope are hard; they are difficult to accept, to receive as the gift they are. They offer an invitation to choose to risk the madness outside than to allow it to usurp the call to love as we have been loved. It is an invitation to forbid the madness from getting inside our hearts and to bear witness to the crucified one in and through our own lives.

Andrew Staron is an assistant professor of theology at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.  This article first appeared in Daily Theology.