Today Catholics everywhere will be reading about how Pope Francis has won a beauty contest sponsored by TIME magazine, a publication which spends much of its time working diligently to undermine the work of the Church over the past two millenia. I realize that I will be expected by many to toe to some sort of accepted Catholic line here, about how great it is that people are paying attention to the Church because of this particular Pope, and how this pontificate is so full of – ahem – hope and change. I regret to inform the reader that he will probably be disappointed.
Having read the four-page TIME cover piece on Pope Francis, I was as an initial matter struck by the fact that the secular media is absolutely obsessed with sex. This should perhaps come as no surprise, since one could hardly expect a leopard to change its spots. For all the oft-heard characterization of Catholics as being trapped in some sort of repressive timewarp, the Catholics in my circle seem to have a far better-integrated understanding of their own sexuality than those who have an insatiable need to talk not only about theirs, but everyone else’s all the time.
It also struck me as a bit strange that TIME would title their cover piece as: “Pope Francis, the People’s Pope”. Who else’s would he be, exactly? The title brings to mind the media-induced wailing that occurred upon the death of Diana, “The People’s Princess”, and betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the role of the Supreme Pontiff in the Church.
I would imagine that the present Holy Father himself would be the first to say that the real “Person of the Year”, and indeed of every year, is of course Jesus Christ. Pope Francis is simply His instrument, charged with the (unenviable) duty of shepherding His flock. In imitation of Christ, the Pope tries to follow the instruction given at the Last Supper that “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him.” (St. John 13:15-16) From what I have seen so far, this Pope is doing an excellent job of making all of us feel decidedly uncomfortable about whether we are being a useful servant.
At the same time however, one needs to be careful in noting that being elected pope does not mean that one becomes a saint. There are many saintly popes, for example Pope St. Damasus I whose feast day is today, and there are also many less-than-saintly ones. There are popes who were personally popular but spiritually lazy, and popes possessing great personal sanctity whom no one particularly liked. It is far too soon for us to have an assessment of Pope Francis’ papacy, which is not even a year old. Whatever secular attention this Pope is receiving at the moment, his personal popularity among those who would never darken the door of a church, let alone a confessional, is completely irrelevant if that is all it remains.
And here, like it or not, is where you come in. It would be ludicrous to suggest that it is solely Pope Francis’ job to get people in the pews. How very easy it is to armchair quarterback this Pope and say, he should be doing this or he should not be doing that, thereby setting yourself up as your own sort of Antipope. Yet if you are not out there evangelizing to others, in the myriad of ways by which one can do so in one’s daily life, I will not be particularly impressed by your prognostications on whether Pope Francis will create women cardinals or rent out the Papal Apartments for parties.
Truthfully the TIME honor is not so terrible, as far as back-handed compliments go. However now that everyone at the office or the grocery store is talking about the head of the Catholic Church, you have an opportunity to flesh out the very incomplete portrait painted by this magazine and the secular media in general. For in the end, not surprisingly, TIME got it wrong. The theme of this papacy is clearly not, “Who am I to judge?”, but rather, “Come and see.”