Matthew Sewell is the author of the popular “Popes in a Year” daily email series, and hosts The Popecast, a podcast about papal history. Matthew writes about intriguing stories from Church history, the messiness of the Christian life, and (occasionally) insights into Catholicism through Denver Broncos football. By day, he works at Flocknote to help parishes and dioceses build a more connected Church. Matthew, his wife, and their unborn child make their home in Spokane, Washington.
In 1914, two months after being ushered into the Chair of Peter, Pope Benedict XV issued his plea for peace, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum. With World War I brewing, this gentle-yet-intense pontiff wrote:
As soon as we were able from the height of Apostolic dignity to survey at a glance the course of human affairs, our eyes were met by the sad conditions of human society, and we could not but be filled with bitter sorrow. For what could prevent the soul of the common Father of all being most deeply distressed by the spectacle presented by Europe, nay, by the whole world...
When reading that quote, I couldn’t help but think of Pope Francis, especially given the word-beatdown he’s received of late for his so-called “disastrous papacy.” I’ve always been a fan of Pope Francis, and I’m a big believer that understanding Pope Francis in the context of which he is speaking can eliminate 99% of people’s issues with him.
Francis, it would seem, is first and foremost a father and a pastor. Sure, he’s the Bishop of Rome and chief shepherd of the world’s Catholics, but he’s that only in the context of his spiritual fatherhood, that “common Father” to us all, as the penultimate Benedict said.
In that vein and in all of his actions, our pope clearly prefers to accompany persons along their path of life, not some impersonal conglomeration of faceless masses, as could definitely be the temptation when leading a billion people. Not only that, but his penchant for touching our most sensitive moral nerves -- by consistently preaching on things like pride, the devil, and the need for solid and humble servants of the Lord -- can remind one at times of a certain Nazorean carpenter.
Pope Francis is not perfect. Far from it, and I daresay he’d be the first to voice that. Should he respond to the dubia? Probably. Does he say imprudent things, even wrong things, and spark the (rightful) ire of canon lawyers sometimes? Yes.
But to call his a “disastrous” papacy? I don’t buy it.
I say this primarily for one reason: It’s by and large not at all our -- the laity’s -- business to publicly critique the pope, whether we’re a journalist or not. Even if it was Pius XIII seated upon the Chair of Peter, our only rightful obligation would still be to merely pray for the Holy Father, and to continue to trust the words of Our Lord, that the gates of hell would not prevail against that which He himself founded.
In any case, the Servant of the Servants of God doesn’t answer to us. He only answers to the college of bishops insofar as they’re united with him in governing the Church (CCC 883).
The flock doesn’t give orders to its shepherd.
More importantly, though, our growing preoccupation with the inner workings of the Vatican, if we’re honest with ourselves, serves as only an increasing distraction from more fully entering into relationship with Jesus Christ and our respective local churches.
Anything else, especially when it comes to lobbing verbal grenades at Pope Francis, amounts to sitting on a precariously high horse. Something worse even, with little doubt in my mind, than any missteps the Holy Father has made.
As American singer-songwriter Stephen Kellogg put it so eloquently:
So come off your high horse
You're like a plane off course
And I really don’t know what you’re trying to achieve
Looking for someone to blame
Every time it starts to rain
Tell me why do we destroy the things we need?
But you probably don’t see much upon that steed
Your high horse
Looking to the recently-released speech that then-Cardinal Bergoglio made prior to the 2013 conclave, it’s easy to see what might be destroyed or missed if we choose only to look at Francis with a critical eye.
According to Francis in that speech, to be turned in on oneself -- Augustine’s incurvatus in se -- necessarily prevents those in the Church from looking outward to the “existential peripheries.” Such has become the most crucial lesson of his papacy. To go find those most in need of the Lord’s comfort requires a radical willingness to enter into encuentro, “to be bearers of good news for a society kept by disconcerting social, cultural and spiritual shifts and increasing polarization,” as the pope wrote to the U.S. bishops late last year.
Just as Our Lord encountered the woman at the well by being willing to speak to her face-to-face, so too has Pope Francis helped the Church remember that we’re always and forever a person-to-person Church, a people called to encounter others before doing anything else.
Try walking up to a cohabiting loved one and saying "you're living in sin" without first investing in their life, without nuancing that conversation, or without trying at all to understand why that decision was made, before speaking and witnessing the truth to them. Good luck winning that heart for Christ and the Church with such a strategy.
Pope Francis firmly stated early on that he’s a “loyal son of the Church.” So why do we not trust him when his preferred method of encounter is to enter the mess of life and accompany real people with real problems along their path of life, along their journey of faith?
In general, our need to focus more upon our own relationship with the Lord must become simpler and childlike (carefree, even) if we’re to continue growing with Him, and in like manner if we’re to offer real support to the man entrusted to lead us.
I’m reminded of a story about my great-grandfather, an unassuming Montana saloon owner. He kept a small cabin -- more of a shack, I imagine -- in the woods of Montana primarily for hunting or, more generally, the random solitary retreat from life. After he’d died, his children all ventured to the cabin, having never before seen it themselves. They were surprised to find just one thing hanging on its walls.
A picture of the Blessed Mother. Nothing else.
I’d like to think that we, too, are called to strive for such a simple faith. Imagine how much more focused, how much more devoted our prayer lives could be if we cut out the myriad noises that only serve to cause stress and sow division from within and without -- especially those things relating to the Church herself.
Alongside the simple prayer of “Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,” we might just as readily say, “God, remind me that You are God and I am not.”
My dear mother will often say, “Let go, and let God,” and it’s almost always when I find the phrase utterly annoying that I need to hear it most. How crucial it is for us to remember that it’s the Holy Spirit who’s entrusted with choosing our pontiff, and we who are responsible for discerning what the Lord is trying to tell us with His choice.
So let us pray for Pope Francis, now and always. Pray that he be given wisdom and grace to fill his office well. Pray, particularly through the intercession of our 80 canonized pontiffs, that he continue to work for unity, peace, and for the truth of Christ to be known in all nations. Pray that the Lord’s will be done through him. If we do that, it’s sure to bear the choicest of fruit.