The image is captivating. One man is horrifically disfigured. His actual malady is Recklinghausen’s Syndrome, one of the abnormalities often cited as the affliction of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. The surface of the man’s entire body is covered in tumorous growths, ranging in size from a pea to an orange. He looks as if his skinned has been brought to a boil and then flash frozen. Others recoil from him, mistakenly believing that he must have an infectious disease. People cringe, except for the other man in the photo frame. He is dressed in simple white. He is an older man. He looks like he could be your grandfather. This second man leans forward and offers the afflicted man his hand. He caresses the first man’s matted hair. And then the second man draws the first into an embrace, kissing his face.
In my lifetime, I do not recall a public figure of any sort who has elicited such a variety of deeply-impassioned responses as Francis. Everyone finds something to criticize. As soon as the Pope was elected, liberals cried foul. As head of the Jesuit Order in Argentina, liberals claim, Francis was passive and perhaps even cowardly in the face of the military junta that ruled Argentina during that country’s “Dirty War” of the 1970s and 80s. The Pope has even been accused of turning a blind eye when Jesuit priests—along with countless other citizens—were rounded up by the Argentine government and tortured before disappearing altogether. One critic says of the Pope, “He doesn’t face this reality, and it doesn’t bother him. [His only] question is how to save his name, save himself.”[i]
Liberals are also concerned that Francis is no more yielding on social issues such as abortion or the role of women in the Roman Catholic Church than his predecessors have been.
Social conservatives are equally discomfited by Francis. After all, within months of his elevation, Pope Francis gave a radio address in which he offered a dialogue he’d written of a parishioner asking questions of a priest. The priest says, “The Lord has redeemed all of us with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics.” The confused parishioner then asks, “Everyone, Father? [Even] atheists?” To which the priest replies, “Even the atheists. Everyone!”[ii]
Even earlier than that, in a July interview Pope Francis was asked about the Church’s posture toward gay and lesbian Christians. The Pope stunned his interviewer—and social conservatives worldwide—when he responded, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”[iii]
And then a week ago, fiscal conservatives came out punching when Pope Francis issued an “apostolic exhortation” (that’s a fancy Vatican name for a speech) in which the Pope condemned unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny” and attacked the “idolatry of money.”[iv] So upset was one conservative commentator that he said, “Somebody has either written this for [the Pope] or gotten to him. This is pure Marxism.”[v]
Given this across-the-spectrum criticism and constant assault, one would assume that Francis is the least popular pope since the Borgias. And yet, this week TIME magazine awarded Francis its coveted “Person of the Year” designation. A few days before that, Alex Beam of The Boston Globe wrote an essay in which he introduced a new psychological and spiritual phenomenon. These days Christians in other denominations have, Beam says, a serious case of “pope envy.”[vi]
Why is this? How can we have such a split personality that we will decry what we believe to be the Pope’s politics or positions in the culture wars on the one hand, while on the other hand we find ourselves saying to our friends and posting on Facebook, “You know, I really, really like the new pope!”
Jesus answered John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will herald your way.’”
Our world is increasingly one in which the lenses through which we interpret the people around us are starkly black and white. We have the liberal media and conservative radio. We have the religious right and the spiritual-but-not-religious left. When we meet someone, or when we are exposed to some new public figure, we immediately begin the mental process of neatly classifying that person according to the bumper sticker on his car, or the clothes she wears, or where—or whether—the family goes to church. We ask, “Is he one of the good guys, or should I keep my eye on him?”
Our world is also one in which people find themselves bending like reeds in the wind every day under the relentless ideological assaults that come at us from all directions. Some of us actually take pride in our own barbed words and strident convictions, as we shoot partisan arrows at those who dare to disagree with us. Some co-opt Jesus and the things of religion to undergird whatever our ideological agenda may be. Others of us are merely caught in the crossfire.
In this context, what do we make of the new pope? Who is he? What is he? Well, Pope Francis is not Jesus. As an Episcopalian, I will dissent from my Roman Catholic friends and say that Pope Francis is not even the vicar of Jesus. Pope Francis is also not a liberal. And he’s not a conservative. The Pope is one of those rare figures who breaks our categories to pieces and will not be pigeon-holed into a formula we can easily extol or decry. So, what is he? Religion journalist Tom Krattenmaker proposes this:
“The pope is not a politician, a media loudmouth, or an activist. He is a religious figure, wholly dedicated to representing the Gospel of Jesus Christ as he understands it to a world caught up in a thousand other things…Prophetic is probably the best word for the role the pope is playing—not in the sense of predicting the future, but of standing outside of business as usual and speaking hard and inconvenient moral truths. Has someone gotten to the pope, as [one commentator] suggests? Yes, actually. Jesus Christ apparently has.”[vii]
What is a prophet, other than someone who heralds the Way of Jesus? And what happens when that trail is blazed? Jesus himself tells us: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
When Vinicio Riva, that severely disfigured man—the one others assumed was contagious, whom no one else would touch or even approach—was embraced by Pope Francis, Riva said of the experience “The pontiff’s hug was like paradise. He didn’t even think about whether or not to embrace me. I felt as though my heart was leaving my body…I felt only love.”[viii] In that embrace, the Pope rendered a man who had been considered unclean, clean. He acknowledged life where the world saw only fear and death. He raised Mr. Riva to walk proudly as a child of God. He gave good news to the poor.
That is prophetic action. That is what it means to herald the Way of Jesus. That is why, despite the fact that Pope Francis will not fit neatly into our ideological categories, we find ourselves so drawn to him.
Even if we allow the prophetic actions of someone like Pope Francis to break through our ideological barriers, to grant us new eyes to see what it means to herald the Way of Jesus in our world, in our cynicism we might be inclined to claim that the Pope’s pedestal helps him do these things. It’s easy to be prophetic in the limelight, with all the grandeur of the Catholic Church behind you.
And yet, it was leaked by a Vatican insider a week ago that Pope Francis regularly sneaks out of the Vatican at night in the garb of a lowly priest—something he also frequently did as Archbishop of Buenos Aires—and gives money and food to the street poor.[ix] No cameras, no lights, no accolades. Just prophetic action that heralds the Way of Jesus.
The Pope is a man. He is flawed and faltering and sometimes mistaken. We should give him a break. We should also put away our “pope envy.” Our attention should be on how common and simple Francis’ actions are and how accessible they are to us. This Advent, as we await the coming of the Lord, we, too, can herald his Way. We can be those who are “dedicated to representing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world caught up in a thousand other things.”
In a divided world, we can set aside partisan ideology. We can smooth our barbed tongues and offer words of grace.
We can slow our hurried pace and extend an embrace of love.
We can offer to the world, in public and in private, images that cause hearts to rise from their chests.
We can declare the unclean clean, grant new sight to the inwardly blind, and give hope to the poor.
We needn’t be a reed bent and broken in the wind. We can be prophets, this day until the day the Lord comes.