Shortly after Pope Francis emerged from the balcony doors above St. Peter’s Basilica — after he had bowed to the crowd, asking for prayers and attended to the duties of Holy Week with a notable lack of ostentation — a captioned image began to show up on Facebook.
It contained pictures of the three most recent popes. Beside the picture of Blessed John Paul II was the word “Hope.” Next to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, one read, “Faith.” With Pope Francis, the word “Love.”
All three popes projected faith, hope and love, but this particular meme was a brilliant and beautifully succinct summation of which virtue each pontiff brought, in a special way, to the Church and the world-at-large.
Was it accurate? I think so. Pope John Paul continually called out “do not be afraid,” and in response oppressed peoples dared to defy corrupt systems of governance, and systems fell. Surviving an assassin’s bullet, he rebounded only to be struck later with illness, which he allowed to restrain his outreach not at all. In 2002, upon his arrival in Toronto to celebrate World Youth Day, the media could focus only on his weakness and suggest that the mighty pope from Poland was finally depleted. By the gathering’s end — having witnessed the reinvigorating power of love shared between a sick old man and adoring youths, the narrative necessarily changed. Weeks before his death in 2005, Pope John Paul still appeared at his apartment window and, unable to speak, showed his faithful attention to the people and received theirs in return. His mere presence and mindfulness was a silent rebuke to a world being carried off by a culture of death; it was an eloquent statement that even when old and less-abled, the human person has both purpose and value beyond immediate understanding, all of it rooted in hope.
Pope Benedict XVI, introverted and shy, but dogged and dutiful in his lifelong service to the Church, was the professorial “teaching pope” whose every action and statement boiled down — in one way or another — to the power that resides in trust, which animates the fire of faith. To have faith in God is to trust in His love — to trust that He wants only our good, even when life seems to be handing us something bad. So important is trust to the life of faith, and so important is the Eucharistic faith to the life of the world, that Pope Benedict — realizing that trust in the Roman road was damaged and in need of repair — helped build new roads for rites of Christian unity. Most incredibly, when he realized that the world had stopped paying attention, this good teacher gave us one last, astonishing and profound lesson in what it means to have faith: he cast the whole Church (and therefore the world) into the path of the Holy Spirit in a supreme act of humility, and he trusted. Whether he had faith in the papal conclave is unknowable; his faith in Providence is unquestionable.
And what was delivered to the world through that act? A pope who took all of the theory of faith and hope, through 2,000 years, and showed us what its application looks like: it looks like you and like me. It looks like a casual greeting and an impromptu remark full of encouragement. It looks like the placing of flowers before a holy image, and sweetly familial prayer. It looks like a pastor greeting a congregation by the door after holy Mass, and the admission that not every language or task comes easily. In kisses given to those society holds apart, it looks like lightness — making what is heavy easier to bear. It looks like openness and access before a crowd that could hurt you. It looks like an acknowledgement that having beautiful things about one is not a bad thing at all, and that not particularly needing them in order to be happily engaged in life is even better. It looks like commonality in humanity; the gathering we are all invited in to — with a door left open, in case anyone changes his mind and decides to enter. It looks like love.