“Everyone needs to be touched by the comfort and attraction of God’s saving love, which is mysteriously at work in each person, above and beyond their faults and failings” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 44).
A year ago, I was blessed to serve as a commentator for EWTN’s coverage of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and also the election of Pope Francis. I have subsequently followed the words and actions of our new Pope closely. When I reflect on Francis’ first year, the Parable of the Lost Sheep and Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery come to mind.
In the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7), Jesus teaches us that a good shepherd will leave 99 of his sheep to search for one who has strayed, concluding that there will be more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than for 99 righteous people who have no need of repentance. In encountering the adulterous woman about to be stoned (John 8:2-11), Jesus tells her would-be assailants that “he who is without sin be the first to cast a stone.” In both cases, Jesus speaks of seeking out a sinner and letting a sinner know he or she is loved by God before the sinner has repented of his or her sins.
These two accounts differ somewhat from the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), who comes to his senses and returns to his father, although, to be sure, no sinner can repent without the grace of God aiding the process. In that light, the three accounts are complementary, because they all manifest God’s infinite mercy to those in need.
Similarly, Pope Francis has reminded us in his first year that we are called to bring God’s love to the highways and byways of the world, so that all might encounter Jesus Christ and experience his abundant life (John 10:10).
Some have wittingly or unwittingly misconstrued the Pope’s words during his first year; for example, his statement regarding those with same-sex attraction (SSA). Pope Francis didn’t simply say, “Who am I to judge?” as if condoning a homosexual lifestyle, but, rather, “If someone is gay, and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?”
Here, he was clearly talking about someone with SSA who is striving to live a chaste lifestyle, not an unchaste one. (As Francis has made clear elsewhere, and affirmed his words with faithful actions, he is a loyal son of the Church.) Still, even with the most hardened sinners, whatever their vice, Christ calls us to extend his life-giving love to others so that they might yet repent and their hearts melted and transformed by Our Lord’s incomparable healing touch (John 8:32).
In other words, we are called to put on Christ (Romans 13:14), sharing the Gospel with zeal, yet also with humble love — for one who communicates the truth without love has violated the very Gospel he claims to profess and exemplify (1 Corinthians 13:1-13). Such actions can be stumbling blocks to those most in need of the Gospel’s liberating truth, as Pope Francis has reminded us.
Pope Francis has also modeled humility in his first year. He has sometimes not communicated with precision. And granting an interview to atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari was not his best decision. The elderly Scalfari reproduced the interview without benefit of audio recording or written notes, and, subsequently, he portrayed Francis as a moral relativist, raising concerns even among fair-minded Protestant Christians. But Francis has recalibrated, being more prudent in what he says and to whom he says it, and he has made sure that the unreliable Scalfari interview was removed from the Vatican website.
And despite what some are inferring about the Pope’s recent comments on civil unions — comments made during an interview in which he primarily affirmed authentic marriage and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae on conjugal love — Father Thomas Rosica of the Holy See Press Office has emphasized that they’re inferring incorrectly.
If states want to provide help to those in genuine need, including health insurance, they should do so without affirming the relationships of homosexual couples as well as unmarried heterosexuals living together.
Francis continues to be an ambassador of Christ’s merciful love (2 Corinthians 5:17-20), building upon the good work of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, even though many casual observers of the papacy have failed to see the continuity and harmony of the three popes in this regard. He has positively connected with many non-Catholics, including nonbelievers, through his apostolic endeavors. Now, he has the bigger challenge of attempting to lead those multitudes into full communion with the Church or, in the case of non-Christians, establishing communion with Christ and his Church for the first time.
Receiving God’s mercy necessarily entails realizing you are in need of it, that you have to repent and that you have to receive God’s forgiveness and reform your life. And that can be rather difficult, not only because of one’s personal pride, but also because of the competition the Church receives from the world, the flesh and the devil (1 John 2:16; Ephesians 6:11). Pope Francis clearly understands that our primary opponents in this salvific battle are not human, but spiritual. Early on and often in his pontificate, Pope Francis has spoken of the reality of the devil and our need to be on guard in advancing the kingdom of God.
That spiritual wariness should remind us of the nature of our collective mission to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). We who strive daily to walk with Christ as members of his Church should always remember that even our most ardent human opponents are prospective recipients of God’s merciful love. We who have received God’s mercy should never conclude that others — no matter how notorious their transgressions — are unworthy or otherwise beyond the reach of that same mercy. That’s a fundamental message of Pope Francis’ first year.
Tom Nash is a theology adviser at EWTN, the author of
Worthy Is the Lamb: The Biblical Roots of the Mass (Ignatius Press) and a contributing author to Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass (Emmaus Road Publishing)? .