I found myself stuck in the middle seat on a flight from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., laptop open, entranced, reading through Pope Francis’ most recent letter (apostolic exhortation), “The Joy of the Gospel”. As I read the letter, sitting in this uncomfortable seat in the sky, I found myself struck, paragraph by paragraph, by memorable lines and phrases and began copying and pasting each one into a Word document for future rumination (or more likely social media posts). The humble and warmly personal tone of the letter is exactly what I wanted in the Pope–what could be bad or dangerous about that?
Sitting again in a more comfortable middle seat at a dinner party with friends a few days later, as the conversation turned to Pope Francis and the universal praise of his words and example, it finally struck me why I should have felt even more uncomfortable in the middle seat on the plane and why Pope Francis might be the most dangerous person in the world: we agree with him.
The danger of Pope Francis is no different than the danger that comes with the rise in popularity of any other figure, though it is magnified when the person happens to be the most talked-about person in the world: when we agree with someone, we are rarely moved to grow or change. The life of a Christian disciple requires growth and change. A God that does not make us uncomfortable is no god at all.
What we are tempted to miss, each of us who are so ardently enthusiastic about Francis, is that Pope Francis is begging us to change, but we are more interested in listening to the applause from media outlets and friends as we stand with him to receive the ovation. Pope Francis’ papacy will only bear fruit when he inspires us to live differently and examine those parts of ourselves that we would rather keep hidden in the dark. On my computer I have a page of quotes that reflect exactly what I want from a Pope, but what does he want from me?
It isn’t as though Pope Francis hasn’t been trying, it’s that we haven’t been trying. He has said plenty of things that should make us uncomfortable no matter our ideological leaning or pet issues:
(Pick one and talk to God about why it makes you uncomfortable and invites you to grow.)
- He embraces disfigured people who we would walk past every day.
- He intentionally chooses to not talk about abortion regularly.
- He reaffirms Pope John Paul II’s definitive statement against a female clergy.
- He encourages us to go to confession regularly.
- He holds the fire to an unbridled capitalism that robs from the poor, challenging even the abundance that can be found in the closets of priests or middle-class millennials!
The danger that Francis poses to each of us is the same danger that our interpretation of Pope Benedict posed as well; it is simply a different audience lulled into the complacency of a life lived as a consumer Catholic. We create memes of what we like, skim through the rest and call it the New Evangelization.
The human need for, and Christian tradition of, regular examination and accountability is not new, but it bears remembering: every day we are called to feel uncomfortable, to dig deeper, to shine God’s light in the dark places that are not so pretty or popular. When we reduce Pope Francis to a poet instead of a prophet we strip him of his most authentic identity as pastor, who knows the smell of his sheep and knows that we need to be cleaned! The role of bringing Jesus into the world is not primarily the role of a pastor, Supreme or parochial, but of each of us lay men and women called by God to live in the world but not of the world. We cannot allow his charity, poverty and humility to be a substitute for our own Christian witness. The impact of Pope Francis on the Catholic Church and the modern world will not be measured by how many disabled children he kisses, but by how many we embrace and kiss.
Instead of dwelling on the self-gratification or amusement we have from Pope Francis, I am making a personal commitment to allow his words and example to make me feel uncomfortable and move me to growth. Inspired by our Jesuit Pope, perhaps as a night-time examen, we should ask: When did I feel uncomfortable today? When did I let myself be challenged to grow?
If we don’t, we will make Pope Francis into a very dangerous man.
Jonathan Lewis serves as the Coordinator of Evangelization and Young Adult Initiatives for the Archdiocese of Washington