The last eight months have given us the ‘Francis effect’. The world – not just the Catholic world – has been captivated by a previously little-known man who is teaching by example. From the first moment on the balcony in the Vatican when the leader of the Catholic Church bowed low and asked for the faithful to bless him as their bishop, we have seen countless examples of how to live out our Christian faith with the virtues of love, humility, simplicity, kindness, compassion and mercy.
The images are familiar – discarding pomp and ceremony, living simply, being seen deep in prayer, hearing young people’s confessions, washing the feet of women, embracing children, kissing the disabled, honouring the elderly, discarding written homilies when it is more appropriate to speak from the heart, using the symbols of the church to focus us (such as the violet vestments and the mitre reserved for funerals, Good Friday and his own burial, at the Mass of Reparation in Lampedusa), spending four hours with thousands in Rome at a prayer vigil for Syria, telephoning people who are suffering and asking them to use the informal form of speech to address him, as Jesus would have done with the disciples, leaving issues of judgement to God, knowing when it is time to laugh and have fun and when it is time to be silent.
Pope Francis’ words also remind us of the essentials – mercy, the tenderness of God, God’s longing to forgive us if only we would ask, the need for joyfulness, that hope is more than just optimism for Christians, the importance of the poor and the marginalised, using three simple words or images for his homilies so that we can remember them.
All this has reached to the core – how many of us have started to look at our lives and wonder how we can apply this example of Christian love that he is demonstrating? Can I serve the poor in some way? Is my lifestyle too extravagant? Am I being judgemental? Am I a joyous Christian? Do I gossip about others? Do I use the words ‘Please, thank you and sorry’ at home? Am I part of the ‘globalisation of indifference that has taken from us the ability to weep’? Do I half-jokingly wonder what Francis would do, when I am in a difficult situation?
And it is not only us in the pews who are changing – Rome is asking the laity for their opinions on the family; papal nuncios are telling American bishops that they have to be more pastoral and that their priorities should be the poor and the immigrants; lace seems to have disappeared from the vestments, gifts to the Pope are being sold to benefit charities and there are no more limousines in the Vatican.
To non-Catholics the Church is often defined by rules and exclusions, intolerance and perceived injustice. Yet Jesus ‘gave preference to the errant one, rather than to those who are righteous or law-abiding. He welcomed sinners and ate with them.’ Francis has pointed out to us that healing the wounded and preaching the saving love of God are as important, and may be more influential, although no easier to practise, than repeating the already well-known doctrines of the church.
Recently I attended a Stewardship day in Wellington (on 2 November), where the topic was hospitality. Archbishop John Dew reminded us that, ‘It is not believing that leads to belonging, but belonging that leads to believing’. As a convert, I found this statement powerful – looking back to when I was first attracted to the church, the idea of belonging embraced me. The people around me not only had a sense of belonging themselves, but welcomed me and invited me in. This sense of belonging has nurtured me through recent difficult years when it has not been easy to be a Catholic.
Those faithful Catholics still show me how they live the faith, how it imbues their lives, that they have a personal relationship with God, how they pray. Now we see in Peter’s latest successor the same humble example of Christian life: a man who reminds us of the quote attributed to his namesake, St Francis of Assisi – ‘preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words’. It is as if 2000 years have fallen away and we are again in touch with the loving Jesus who heals and saves us.
We owe this to the beauty of teaching by example – and the best thing is that all of us can do likewise.