Pope Francis, the Synod, and You: A New Image for the Church?

Several weeks ago I wrote a piece exploring the power images exercise over us and arguing for the importance of being intentional about how we consume images on a daily basis. Since that time, a number of events have come to pass that made me think it would be beneficial to return to the topic of images, focusing this time on the images we ourselves project.

With varying degrees of self-awareness, we all project an image of ourselves. In fact, most of us tend to project multiple images depending on the people we happen to be with—the image of the dutiful daughter or son when visiting parents, the image of the diligent employee when one’s boss walks through the office, the image of the sports guru when at a bar watching the game, the image of an art aficionado when attending a fancy fundraiser.

We see the same phenomenon manifested in the realm of politics and public affairs, where corporations and politicians live and die by the image they present to the general public. On Monday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made headlines by appearing in public for the first time in five weeks. Kim paused multiple times during his inspection of a housing project to pose for photos, making sure to publicize his presence after weeks of speculation about his health and control over the North Korean government. Leaders in nearby China are currently embroiled in their own battle of public images, attempting to prevent photographs and news of student protests in Hong Kong from reaching the mainland. Here in the U.S. we too understand the importance of projecting the right image and the costs of failing to do so. Just think of all the media attention that has been devoted to questioning the patriotism of politicians who failed to pin an American flag to their lapel or to criticizing President Obama’s “mom jeans”.

Even the Catholic Church is not above the concern to project the right public image. For example, in his famous interview with La Civilta Cattolica, Pope Francis insisted that the Church should be thought of, not as a “small chapel” that can accommodate only a select few, but rather as “the home of all.” Indeed, throughout his pontificate, Francis has seemed concerned with changing the way the world sees the Church. This concern came through again this week in a document published by the Vatican summarizing the bishops’ discussions from the first week of the Synod on the Family. News outlets around the world have described the message and tone of the October 13 document as “a dramatic shift,” “a breakthrough,” and “a pastoral earthquake.” While people of differing ecclesial stances disagree vehemently as to whether the image Pope Francis and this document project is positive or negative, no one can deny that public impressions of the Catholic Church are changing.

But should the Pope and the Church be projecting an image at all? Typically we think of such concern for image as belonging to the spheres of celebrities, politicians, and teenagers. Perhaps the reason some of us recoil at the thought of the Pope acting like these types of people is that we assume the images they project are often less than authentic. We think of the pandering politician changing his demeanor with every town he visits or of the insecure adolescent adapting her persona to fit in with the “in crowd”. Is this the sort of thing the Church is doing at present?

Despite accusations from some corners that the Pope is caving to the pressure of modern culture like a teenager to the “cool kids,” the truth of the matter is that projecting an image is part of what Jesus commanded the Church community to do. “Let your light shine before others,” he told his disciples, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16). I have been using the same phrase (“projecting an image”) to speak both of the actions of the Church and those of other groups, but there are two important distinctions between what Jesus calls his followers to do and what we typically see in the realm of politics and pop culture. The first is that Christians are called to shine their light before others, not for self-serving purposes, but rather for the purpose of serving God and neighbor (see Lk 16:15). Whenever Jesus’ disciples made the mistake of making it all about themselves, he promptly put them in their place (see, e.g., Mk 10:37; Lk 10:20). Today’s Christians are likewise called to witness before the world so that God might be praised and so others might enter into the light of God’s love.

The second distinction is that while many people in the spotlight project an image that is less than honest to their true selves, the image Jesus calls his followers to reflect represents our truest, most authentic self. From the moment of our creation, each of us is called into being as an “image of God” (Gen 1:27). This is who we are most essentially. Like God, our very being consists in loving communion. Any other image we might project is either a reflection of this primary image or a distortion of it.

Cognizant of these distinctions, we can recognize the value—even the imperative—of the Pope and the Church as a whole to project a certain image. Indeed, there is no question of whether or not each of us will project some image. We cannot help but do just that. The question is which image we will project—the image of the loving God (that is, the image we were created to reflect), or an image of our own making. It is a serious question, one which implies a weighty responsibility for anyone who professes to serve God—for the Pope, for the bishops, for all of us humble disciples.

This responsibility comes to the fore in a passage from the first letter of John: “No one has ever seen God; [but] if we love one another, God lives in us” (1 Jn 4:12). Pause for a moment to let the implications of this passage sink in. None of us ever sees God face-to-face in this lifetime. If we come to know God, most likely it will be because we recognized God at work in another human being. You and I can be the face of God to another person. This in the most concrete sense is what it means to be an image of the loving God.

So we are confronted with the question: when others look at us, what do they see? Certainly, if the image we project is driving others away, that should be an indicator that we are falling short of our vocation to image God. Pope Francis clearly realizes this. However, the fact that the image we project is attracting attention is not itself a guarantee that we are living up to our vocation. We must ask further: when others look at us, do they see the love of God shining through? Does the image we project draw others closer to God? This will be the test of the current Synod on the Family and of Francis’ pontificate. Likewise will it be the test of each of our lives. When we meet God, God will either welcome us as daughters and sons, recognizing in us the likeness of the Son, or God will say to us, “I do not know you” (Mt 25:12). Or to rephrase, “I do not recognize the person before me as the person I created you to be.”