After a papal visit that provided a welcome rest from the cynicism of our hyper-political culture, coverage of the Pope has devolved into the familiar stories of spin and political speculation. It’s a let-down, all this anxious squabbling over whom the Pope truly represents, but it probably gives us a clue as to what is ahead. Pope Francis seems to have a particular gift for pushing boundaries in a way that elicits confusion and discomfort, as did Jesus.
Someone should draw this comic strip: Two kids are fighting over a pope doll. One says, “He’s my pope!” and the other, “No! He’s MY pope!” In the next frame, Jesus walks in and says, “No, He’s my pope.” Adopted younger siblings can be so annoying.
As annoying as it is, though, the squabbling over the Pope is also comforting. The ill-founded hopes that Pope Francis will give his blessing to the various redefinitions of the married state reveal a shared human longing for genuine and merciful moral authority and the failure of the language of civil rights and the approval of the courts to replace that authority. Sheep who resist the shepherding of traditional authorities nevertheless long for a good shepherd.
There is a striking similarity between reactions to Pope Francis and the scriptural stories about reactions to the Good Shepherd himself. Not that the Pope is headed to Calvary, but there are parallels. The multitudes flocked to see him, and people testified to finding peace and healing just by being in his presence. Voices from both the right and the left expressed hope that he’d come to set everything straight, that now was finally the time when their enemies would be forced to hear God’s truth. Those same voices expressed anxiety and disapproval about the particular people he chose to welcome. These parallels are not a coincidence. I take them as evidence that Pope Francis is doing his job well.
If Pope Francis is truly representing Christ, Catholics and other admirers of the Pope, whether liberal and conservative, should expect to feel the range of reactions that people had and still have to Christ. The stories of the Gospel provide a clue as to what we’re in for. For instance, as Matthew Schmitz pointed out in his recent parody on the subject of Kim Davis, those who worried about why the Pope expressed kindness to such a controversial, sinful woman (all those husbands!) sounded remarkably like the disciples discovering Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman at the well.
The stories of the Bible mark the spiritual roles we tend to occupy, in particular the ones that blind us. When we find ourselves playing the role of the scriptural roles of the clueless, bitter, self-righteous, or complacent, we have reason to question our perspective.
If, with Pope Francis, various people keep staging modern renditions of scriptural stories, we can expect certain scenarios. Eventually he will offend either the right or the left, or both, by holding up a person from a group that many associate with all that is wrong in the world as an exemplar of love for one’s neighbor. Perhaps he will stumble across righteous rage against an unrepentant sinner, or (in the language of the secular left) a die-hard bigot, and respond with outrageous levels of mercy in a way that confounds his enemies. He will likely accept and even seek the hospitality of those who have offended or oppressed some contingent. Finally, he’ll be sure to shower forgiveness and mercy on the undeserving in a manner that makes some folks feel horridly taken for granted in their ordinary goodness.
The Pope isn’t Christ, of course, and Catholics are free to disagree with him on nonessential matters and to disapprove of his tactics and politics without cause to worry that they are therefore falling away from God. Sometimes our discomfort with the Pope’s words and actions might be warranted and entirely benign, but at other times our reactions have a spiritual significance that readers of Sacred Scripture should recognize. Those who know the stories of the Good Samaritan, the adulterous woman, Zacchaeus and Matthew, and the prodigal son know which parts we do and don’t want to play in these stories. We’ve been warned.
I’ve heard that Pope Francis has a charism of mercy. It seems to me that he also has a charism of liminality, that is, a gift of revealing boundaries and pushing us just past them, pointed in a new direction toward something not yet entirely clear. It’s a Jesuit thing, but it’s also a Christian one. Boundaries are essential to Christian life, but spiritual growth involves the liminal.
Given what appears to be Pope Francis’s careful attempt to avoid the culture wars and to reach out to those who distrust the Church, he is more likely to disturb conservatives, but in the end, no one is liable to be spared. The Vatican might get the Kim Davis business to blow over, but, if the Pope represents Jesus faithfully, his spokespeople will ultimately fail to safeguard his popularity. While there will be times when the press fawns over him and crowds clamor to see him, there will also be times when people will walk away, disappointed or bitter. Those who long for a pope whose pronouncements all their Facebook friends will always like will be disappointed. We should be worried if it were otherwise.
Molly Oshatz writes from Mountain View, California.