This Extraordinary Pope

I’ve just watched the actual video of Pope Francis’ airplane press conference, and it’s even more remarkable than the quotes we gleaned earlier from reporters like John Allen. What’s so striking to me is not what he said, but how he said it: the gentleness, the humor, the transparency. I find myself with tears in my eyes as I watch him. I’ve lived a long time to hear a Pope speak like that – with gentleness and openness, reasserting established dogma with sudden, sweeping exceptions that aren’t quite exceptions – except they sure sound like them.

In the written text, I was disappointed, for example, by his absurd statement that Pope John Paul II had definitively shut down the question of women priests. Firstly, no Pope has the authority to shut down a debate like that, especially one that is purely managerial and pragmatic, and not a matter of doctrine. The statement is so absurd part of me wondered whether Francis wasn’t deploying a little irony  … and then I listened to him actually speak the words. And it was far sweeter than irony.

He asserts orthodoxy and then swerves dramatically to one side, his voice lilting and becoming more intense, as if to say, “Yes, I know this is what the Church teaches, and I am not challenging that. But look at the wider picture. Remember that in the Church, the honor accorded to Jesus’ mother is higher than that of any of the apostles, and that women, simply by virtue of being women, are above priests in importance to the Body of Christ.” That’s both a repetition of orthodoxy and yet also a whole-sale re-imagination of it.

Think of this Pope’s refusal to revisit the issue of women in the priesthood and then note that he washed the feet of a woman in Holy Week – the first time any Pope had washed the feet of a woman, let alone, as was the case, a Muslim woman in juvenile detention. Remember also the remarks of one of the most powerful religious figures on earth about atheists:

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! …  ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

And this is surely part of the point. What Francis is telling us, it seems to me, is that we should stop squabbling about these esoteric doctrines – while he assents to orthodoxy almost reflexively – and simply do good to others, which is the only thing that really matters. Stop obsessing in your mind and act in the world: help someone, love someone, forgive someone, meet someone.

One of the most telling things about Jesus is that he did not elucidate a theology. It had to be inferred by Paul. Jesus merely told stories of great charm and mystery. But he also clearly transformed the lives of those he encountered by the way in which he lived and died. It was that that convinced so many that this human being wasn’t just any other human being, that the divine had somehow transformed him, and he could transform others.  I heard in the voice of Francis today the voice of Jesus confronted with the woman about to be stoned for adultery. No, he does not condone adultery. But the entire dynamic of the story is about something else: it’s about how Jesus defused an impending, brutal execution by bobbing and weaving and drawing in the sand and then speaking intimately with the woman herself with what can only be called revolutionary empathy.

“They are our brothers.” That’s the tone of Jesus. That is, for the Papacy, revolutionary empathy.

Perhaps this is a better way of seeing the difference between Francis and what came before him.

It is impossible to think of Jesus seeing the marginalized of his time, like lepers or Samaritans, and teaching them that they are “somehow distorted, off center, and … not within the direction of creation” because of something they simply are and cannot change. Jesus – as represented by the Gospels – clearly sees that kind of rigid, callous thinking as the mark of Pharisees, the sign of a religion that has forgotten love in its obsession with law, and therefore cannot be connected with the Father of all Creation which is Love. Francis, mind you, does not rebuke Benedict XVI; he pours out affection for him. But everything he is saying and doing is an obvious, implicit rejection of what came before.

What Francis is doing is not suddenly changing orthodoxy; he is instead pointing us in another direction entirely. He is following Saint Francis’ injunction: “Preach the Gospel everywhere; if necessary with words.” He is a walking instantiation of the way Jesus asked us to live: with affection and openness, charity and forgiveness; and a reluctance to seize on issues of theology instead of simply living a life of faith, which is above all a life of action in the service of others:

We all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much.

Yes, we do, Holy Father. We so sorely do.