All shook up

Pope Francis must be really rattling people. Columnist Bonnie Erbé seems so concerned that Pope Francis is attracting positive attention that in a recent column she had to resort to the old shibboleth about the Catholic Church being “one of the wealthiest organizations in the world.”

She went on to criticize Francis for condemning the abuses of capitalism when the Church has holdings of property and stocks itself. “I’d like to see him sell [the Church’s] stock and use the proceeds for feeding, clothing and providing housing for the poor people he so adores,” she sneered in a column for Scripps Howard News Service.

That the Church already does these things through dozens of institutions like Catholic Relief Services, Cor Unum, Miserior, Adveniat and Catholic Charities apparently has escaped her notice.

Erbé is hardly a friend of religion. A few years ago she wrote: “What is the religious right doing by campaigning against abortion? First and foremost, its efforts seem aimed at trying to keep church pews filled by bringing more and more poor people into the world.”

Accusing the Church of fabulous wealth is the stuff of anti-Catholic propaganda from the turn of the last century, but the fact that it is being trotted out now is a sign that some people are getting a little concerned. Pope Francis is just getting too much good press.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis greets pilgrims as he begins his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican May 29. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Indeed, the world does continue to find him fascinating. At a conference of religious educators I recently attended, I found Catholics of all stripes passionately interested in him. To a certain extent, he has not defined himself yet in our eyes, so each person can find something about him that he or she likes. His rebukes of capitalist excesses, his slams on careerism in the Church, his emphasis on God’s love and mercy, his tolerance of those who are different, his sterling defense of the Church on life and marriage issues: It’s all there.

A good part of his message was summed up in the talk he gave on Pentecost to 200,000 members of the new ecclesial movements who gathered in St. Peter’s Square. He spoke of his vocation, of his family, of the power of prayer. And he had this to say to the chanting of his name in the square:

“All of you in the square shouted out: ‘Francis, Francis, Pope Francis.’ But, where was Jesus? I want to hear you shout out. ‘Jesus, Jesus is Lord, and he is in our midst.’ From now on, no more ‘Francis,’ only ‘Jesus.’ All right?”

The witness of Pope Francis is so powerful because he finds direct ways of preaching the truth. His fundamental message of God’s love and mercy, of the need to evangelize, of the need to reform our own hearts, is no different from his predecessors, but his ability to talk with us in simple, clear language is quite distinct.

And he is using this gift to challenge all of us, if we are really paying attention. The tone of Pope Francis is one of prophetic directness, and his message does not spare any of us: Bishops, priests, religious, laity.

Of course, Scripture reminds us, prophets are rarely embraced for long. As the pope said in his homily earlier that day: “Newness always makes us a bit fearful, because we feel more secure if we have everything under control, if we are the ones who build, program and plan our lives in accordance with our own ideas, our own comfort, our own preferences.”

What he is really calling on all of us to do is to trust in the Lord, “to abandon ourselves to him with complete trust, allowing the Holy Spirit to be the soul and guide of our lives in our every decision.”

Pope Francis may be making critics of the Church like Erbé uncomfortable, but if the rest of us are paying attention, she won’t be the only one. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.