In preparation for Pope Francis’ visit to the United States the El Paso Times asked me to write a column that they would include in their anticipatory booklet that was distributed just before the Pope’s arrival in our Country.
Who is Pope Francis?
Pope Francis is not Jesus Christ! Let’s be clear about that from the outset. Clearly Pope Francis does not see himself as Jesus Christ. When asked to describe himself at the beginning of his Papacy he said very simply, “I am a sinner.” So as we prepare for the visit of the man who is referred to as “Our Holy Father” let us consider more fully who he is. This will allow us to more fully grasp how we should take his words and actions among us.
We Catholics call the Pope, the “Vicar of Christ”. A ‘vicar’ is someone who stands in for another. As Bishop of Rome and successor of the one Jesus placed at the head of the Apostles, he is represents in his office Christ’s leadership of the Church.
As many who study history will point out to be a Pope is not to have an assurance of holiness. Many popes in fact have been anything but holy. Needless to say a pope ought to be holy. Through sanctity they can more transparently reflect the one they represent. But Christ did not promise Peter that he would always be holy. He promised Peter that he would be the ‘rock’, ‘petrus’, upon which his Church would be built and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. We Catholics have always understood that this means that in essential matters of faith and morals, by the help of the Holy Spirit, Peter and those who continued his mission as his successors would be preserved from teaching error.
So the Pope, as the successor of the one whom Jesus chose, represents Christ in a unique and wonderful way. Many Popes have fulfilled this awesome role by not teaching error despite their very unChristlike lives. Many have given the ultimate testimony to their faith through their death as martyrs. Many have been excellent teachers and even reformers of the Church in times when reform was desperately needed. Each pope has particular gifts that he brings to his office. A study of history will often show that the particular gifts and talents he brought were exactly what the Church and the world needed at a given time. Thanks in large measure to their service, the longest running institution in history has continued her divinely ordained presence and work in the world.
So this Holy Father is not Jesus, but he represents Jesus present in the world in our day. I think many people will agree Pope Francis does that very well. Like Jesus he is a prophetic presence who, like every prophet, at times shocks and challenges his listeners. Like Jesus he is a “sign of contradiction” loved by some (especially the poor and the outcast) and rejected by others who are threatened by his teaching.
Like Jesus, he has not rejected the religious teaching of those who came before him. Quite the contrary! But he has reframed the faith of the Church in a way that people can find surprising and can sound completely new.
In the popular understanding the Catholic Church had come to be seen as that ‘moral nanny’ who always said “No”, especially in matters of sexual behavior. Pope Francis set the reset button, so to speak, and chose to focus on the most fundamental aspects of Jesus’ teaching, aspects that must be grasped and experienced before any moral teaching can begin to make sense. In Christ-like fashion he has enamored us with actions and words that express God’s unconditional love and mercy, especially to the poor and to those lost and unnoticed on the fringes of society.
Who has not been moved by his washing of the feet of a young Muslim teen in a detention center, or his embrace of a man terribly disfigured by the so-called “elephant man disease”, or by his tears for children victims of senseless violence and war? Who has not also been personally challenged by his call to service of the poor and especially of migrants, or his urgings to reject any kind of violence as a solution to our conflicts, or by the utter simplicity of his lifestyle?
Yes, this Pope has gotten the attention of many in our world and not only Catholics. He has caused many who have fallen away from their faith to recognize in their heart once again the still quiet voice of God.
As this amazing Shepherd comes to our country my hope for the people of our region and our country as well is that we will not find ourselves standing back and judging the words of Pope Francis according to our politics or our self-interest. This is the kind of reception Jesus received from people of his time and place. We are about to be blest with the presence of a man who is not Christ, but who in many ways is very like him. I pray that we will not let this opportunity pass us by but that we will receive him and his teaching with open hearts.
Most Rev. Mark J. Seitz, Bishop of El Paso