By Frank Wessling
More and more people, Catholic and not, are saying good things about Pope Francis. He’s “a breath of fresh air.” He’s “natural” and “spontaneous.” He speaks in ways “everybody can understand.” He’s “humble” and “approachable.”
By his manner and the things he has emphasized – like his regular references to the Church as “for the poor” – Francis himself is a message. The Church is persons, a Person, before it is doctrine; relationships, a meeting before it is canon law; the company of a shepherd before it is a flow chart designed with a Roman head.
Its principal reference point is Jesus. Everything else, everything, is secondary.
We could say that there’s nothing unusual about this. Of course Jesus is the center of our faith. No one, especially no other pope, has denied it. But that point can be pushed to the background, overshadowed, even lost in management of an organization. Management can begin to act as if it is the center.
The Church has been an organization as well as a community of faith for 20 centuries. Those two dimensions of life are in tension, naturally. One tends toward control; we know that tension within us, especially if we’ve raised a family.
Parents seek something both whole and dynamic, a circle of love in which the parts grow to be creative of their own circles. But the creative always includes surprise. The children don’t grow in predictable, controllable directions. We worry. We try to direct subtly, carefully, sometimes roughly and badly.
This is the story of Christian development in history. An enormous system of management grew around the earth to build a Church whose initial inspiration was a hope and faith based on experience of Jesus. Since management is easy to grasp and an experience of Jesus — while deeply desirable — is beyond control, it has naturally been a struggle to keep our priorities straight.
Our new pope seems determined to help us do that.
Last week he spoke to the young people attending World Youth Day in Brazil like a preacher with a simple message: Jesus is the model of love, the presence of God, the Good News. Look to him. Notice his way, and then follow him.
With Jesus at the center in your life, he told the massive gathering of youth, “you will never be disappointed … your days will be enlightened and your horizon will no longer be dark.”
Francis invited them into the “revolution” that faith can start but admitted that it is not the easy way of “possessions, money and power.” While these “can give a momentary thrill, the illusion of being happy, they end up possessing us and making us want to have more; never satisfied.” In contrast, with faith, like salt on food, “your life will take on a new flavor.”
In one session, the pope said, “I ask of you to be revolutionaries, to go against the current,” and his words were cheered.
In the end, Francis said he was commissioning them all as missionaries without borders. “Where does Jesus send us? There are no borders, no limits. He sends us to everyone.”
And the impulse for this sending is “the force of love … not from a desire for domination or power.”
Overall, young people were told that the best in life comes from living out in faith the best that is in them. And their best is found as they look deeply into Jesus.