Standing in St. Peter’s square one year ago amid the euphoria at the installation mass of Pope Francis, an NBC News microphone was suddenly in my face, with a reporter asking my thoughts on our new pope. My response, based on the little I knew about Jorge Bergoglio’s days leading the flock in Argentina, was, “I think he is going to challenge all of us to live a deeper life of faith.”
Sure enough, he has done just that in the first year of his papacy. Whether you attend mass daily, haven’t been since your First Communion, or ever, Francis has been calling you to go deeper.
As in a Rorschach test, some are seeing what they want to see -- trying to use Francis to promote their own views of what the Catholic Church is, or ought to be. Yet in his most recent interview, he rejects "ideological interpretations" of his papacy.
Francis quickly demonstrated that he cannot be put in a box; he is neither liberal nor conservative. The only label one can put on Francis is “authentically Catholic,” in the fullest sense of the word, and he is challenging Catholics of all stripes to get out of our boxes and be authentically Catholic as well.
Francis’ challenge began the way great church reformers, especially his namesake from Assisi, also began – with a call to poverty of spirit. Francis’ first year can be summed up in his proclamation that he wants a “Church which is poor and for the poor.”
Catholics focused on social justice may have felt satisfaction at this, but Francis doesn’t allow us to think of the poor in narrow economic terms. “The goal of economics and politics,” he tells us, “is to serve humanity, beginning with the poorest and most vulnerable wherever they may be, even in their mothers' wombs.” Francis has also prodded conservative Catholics out of comfort zones in a number of ways.
He has not just been challenging us to a deeper life of faith, but inviting us to it, calling upon Catholics who have fallen away to come back home by emphasizing the essentials of the faith with a pastor’s heart, deeply loving and compassionate. He knows people cannot understand particular teachings without the context of deeper truths.
Divorced and remarried? Struggling with your sexuality? Without judgment, and with a heart full of love, Francis wants you back. He reiterates that mother church cannot change or redefine “God’s magnificent plan for the family,” but he recognizes that we live in a very broken world. The Church must proclaim “the beauty of the family and marriage, the greatness of this human reality,” while “thoughtfully considering how to tackle some of the pastoral challenges without falling into casuistry.”
The pope is inviting young people to courageously reject our secularized, self-centered culture and to embrace a life of faith and self-giving in marriage and family life.
Francis’ humility, love and authenticity are attractive, especially to young people. Three million of them responded to his invitation to join him for Mass on Copacabana Beach.
He is inviting women to a more active “decision-making” role in the Church, saying “the role of the woman in the Church is not only [of] maternity, mother of the family, but it is stronger. But think that the Madonna is the most important of the apostles.” In an endearing, down-to-earth touch, he invites mothers to nurse their restless babies during Mass at the Vatican, lest they wait uncomfortably in hunger.
Pope Francis is inviting us to see the beauty in every human life -- in his tender embrace of a severely disfigured man and when he invited homeless men from the streets around Vatican City to his small papal birthday celebration.
As he said in an address to the United Nations, "This ‘culture of waste’ tends to become the common mentality…. Human life, the person, is no longer perceived as a primary value to be respected and protected, especially if poor or disabled, if not yet useful -- such as the unborn child -- or no longer needed -- such as the elderly."
The Holy Father is inviting us to return to the beautiful sacrament of confession by showing up an hour early when he visits churches in Rome to personally sit in the confessional to reconcile wounded parishioners to Our Lord.
Francis is inviting us to have confidence again in the management of the Church as he sweeps out scandal by shaking up and shaping up the Vatican bureaucracy. And he is inviting his fellow clergy to “be shepherds, with the ‘odor of the sheep,’ make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men.” His colloquial expressions render these invitations terribly charming.
It’s not just Catholics whom Pope Francis is inviting, reaching out in sincerity and love to atheists in personal letters and visits. He has reached out to Muslims in hope of true dialogue. The leader of the World Jewish Congress says of Catholic-Jewish relations under Francis, “The dialogue and the relationship have been unprecedented in terms of warmth and closeness.”
It is this pastoral embrace of Catholics and non-Catholics alike that earned Pope Francis the title of Time Magazine's Person of the Year. Really, all that he is doing is proclaiming, and living, Christianity 101. And he is challenging and inviting us to do the same.
It’s been quite a year.