Appreciating Francis

Popes aren’t Jesus.

Catholics are followers of Jesus, first and foremost. Popes are their vicars on earth and are a locus of unity for all believers. But popes aren’t Jesus.

That said, I have felt for a long time that we are enjoying a golden age of the papacy. I think that in all the ups and downs, the good and the bad, of papal history, we have had quite a run.

Pope St. John Paul II ignited in me my adult faith and made me want to serve the Church in my profession as a journalist and editor. He was young and vigorous when elected, and though some people thought him too conservative and too prolific in his writings and talks, he fired my imagination.

Pope Benedict was one of the most graceful theological writers to have ever occupied the Chair of Peter. He was also a surprise: Not in the way that youthful John Paul was, but as a pope who wrote movingly of God’s love, of faith and reason, and of truth. No one expected the “Panzer Kardinal” to be the first “Green Pope,” but he was.

And now Francis. I really like Francis.

I like that he sees the world through the eyes of the Southern Hemisphere. I like his preaching style, his earthy expressions. I like that he’s not suffocated by the catacomb Church that Europe has become or the angst- and anger-ridden Church of North America.

His example and words have caught the attention of the world. He told us all he preferred a Church of accidents to a Church closed in on itself, and he has delivered a few accidents himself in his off-the-cuff remarks. It doesn’t seem to bother him. He’s got people listening.

The pope is not Jesus, but in his words, Francis often reminds me of Jesus. He is not afraid to challenge the “Good Jews,” and he is not reluctant to console the “Bad Jews.” He is a bit of a prophet, which can be a terrible pain, for prophets are always telling us things we don’t want to hear. We really don’t like prophets until they are dead.

Lately, I’ve been reading columns about how people are getting tired of his scolding tone. These comments make me laugh, because they often come from a sector of the pews that also complains about how priests never preach about sin or the devil or substantive issues.

But I understand. Lots of hardworking priests and bishops and lay people feel they are trying their best. They are working as hard as they can, whether in Europe or in the United States. Maybe they are “maintaining,” to use a Francis pejorative, but it takes a lot of energy just to maintain these days.

One priest told me, “He keeps talking about the periphery, but does he see that in many of our Western countries, we [faithful Catholics] are the periphery?” An interviewer on the latest papal flight had a different take, asking if the Holy Father was ignoring the middle class. Francis, to his credit, said he’d give that some thought.

I wonder if we’ll hear his thoughts in September. Here in the States, we need some encouragement, too.

If I could have a few words with the pope, I might tell him how much I liked his image of the shepherd smelling like the sheep, but that the shepherd also smells like the other shepherds. There are such hard-working bishops out there who are being constantly second-guessed by everyone. The same goes for priests. They need his witness, but they need his support as well.

Popes aren’t Jesus. They aren’t the Holy Spirit either. Ultimately, it’s up to the Spirit what lasting impact Francis and his reforms will have on the Church. As for me, I’m just trying to pay attention and hear what the Spirit wants me to learn from our prophet pope.

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.