The people’s pope is challenging us to emerge from our comfort zones

Opinion: Everyone seems to love Francis and everyone wants to co-opt him to their own agenda


When Fr Jorge Bergoglio was managing a Jesuit seminary in Buenos Aires, the bishop asked Fr Bergoglio to be the parish priest of a completely new parish.

The church was a converted shed, mostly made of plywood. Fr Bergoglio was undeterred. He deployed his seminarians, telling them to walk the streets and to meet every single family. He gave them an intriguing instruction – don’t comb the sheep. It apparently means something like don’t cherry pick.

In other words, he wanted them to reach out to everyone, not just the appealing people, or the ones who were likely to respond positively.

Fr Bergoglio didn’t sit in his shed, waiting for people to come to him, bemoaning the rapid secularisation of society, or fretting about the unpromising circumstances. He went out, and brought his students with him.

This was an area where people could only afford to give their children one meal a day, so the first thing they did was buy a big cooking pot and cook meals, first in a woman parishioner’s house, and then in an open field.

Today, there are three churches and thriving social services in the area where the original parish started.

As Pope Francis, he has a very similar message. Don’t stay penned up in your cosy ghettos. He really has a gift for the memorable phrase. In his last document, called Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) he says: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Aside from a few traditionalists who fear he will destroy the church, and a few radicals who think that he does not go far enough, everyone seems to love Francis. Everyone wants to co-opt him to their own agenda, to applaud a pope made in their own image and likeness.

I love him too, but he scares the heck out of me. Theologically, I am totally comfortable with what he is teaching. I love his critique of capitalism, and his description of clerical careerism as “leprosy”.

I am also profoundly grateful that in the same document I mentioned, he writes: “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life,” rapidly followed by “. . . all of us, as Christians, are called to watch over and protect the fragile world in which we live, and all its peoples.”

No, he scares the heck out of me because he lives out what Jesus taught, and he expects the same of anyone who calls themselves a Christian. I can feel my comfort zones evaporating all around me.

He is opening doors to people who have been away from the church, but are our church communities open to the challenge of living in a way that mirrors Francis’s vision?

John L Allen jnr, the veteran Vatican reporter, refers to The Joy of the Gospel as Francis’s “I have a dream” document.

In it, Francis sets out a vision of a church that is radical, centred on the needs of the poor, not afraid of making mistakes; a church that is humble, determined and spiritual.

It’s a completely practical vision, if that is not an oxymoron. This is a pope who gently told a mother at a papal audience not to be afraid to breastfeed her hungry, crying baby, who says that the three most important phrases in a family are please, thank you and I’m sorry.

He gets family life, but he also gets that families are messy, squabbling places, and the biggest family in the world, the Catholic Church, is pretty dysfunctional right now.

Furthermore, he knows that the global family is facing immense challenges, and he wants us to do something about it.

If this is his “I have a dream” document, we know that the other Christian who spoke those words was willing to pay with his life for them.

That might sound overly dramatic, but Francis spoke recently about the “ecumenism of blood”. Ecumenism is the search for Christian unity – Francis is pointing out grimly that it is being achieved by the shedding of blood.

From Syria, to Iraq, to the Ukraine, to India – in recent weeks Christians have lost their lives or had their human rights curtailed simply for being Christian. Their attackers don’t care whether the Christians are Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant.

This ecumenism is a unity built on experiencing the challenge of living out the message of Jesus where it might cost you your life.

This pope stands with persecuted Christians, and with Africans desperately risking their lives to enter Europe, and with the poor of the world no matter what their creed.

He is also completely aware of his own failings and humanity.

He lives out what he is asking the rest of us to do – take risks, leave our comfort zones, and decide whether we really believe this stuff, and if we do, how would anyone else know that we do? By our fruits shall they know us. That’s his Christmas gift to us.

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