When Pope Francis visited the United States, I expected joy, excitement, and his characteristic surprises as he traveled up the East Coast. I didn’t anticipate the spiritual roller coaster that would ensue after he left.
Many people were hoping to score political points from Francis’ message to Americans, and I was no different: I hoped that he would weave together the issues that polarize the right and left. I hoped that he would get people to see that shunning the immigrant or refugee, tearing apart the unborn child limb-by-limb, ravaging God’s creation, and placing adult desires above justice to children are all affronts to the Gospel.
Before leaving to attend the papal Mass at my alma mater, I turned on the television and watched Francis speak at the White House, cheering when he mentioned religious liberty together with “integral and sustainable” development. Later, leaning up against the makeshift barricade on the lawn at Catholic University, I couldn’t help but grin ear-to-ear and scream out of joy as Pope Francis drove by.
And then I started reading the commentary.
Everyone was keeping score: In his speech to Congress, the Pope only made a veiled reference to abortion, but spoke at length about the death penalty – points for the left. At the UN, he spoke of the right to life as the basis of integral human development – a win for the right. And then we found out that the Holy Father had met Kim Davis and a gay couple, and all hell broke loose with everyone rushing to explain the situation in a way that fit their agenda and their narrative of who Pope Francis is and what he really believes.
Where does this leave us? What do we make of all of this? That seems to depend on one’s leanings, and on the degree to which one trusts Pope Francis.
We as American Catholics have the responsibility to open our hearts to the ways in which the pope challenged us during his visit. For the person who fears immigrants as a threat to one’s way of life, Francis makes clear that that person is a brother or sister who must be welcomed. For the one who values material development over the rights of the unborn, Francis reminds us that economic development is in vain unless it respects the dignity of the person.
But it takes humility to listen instead of keeping score and fighting to claim Francis for one’s side.
The left has had an easier time selectively hearing Francis, both because of his own emphases and the media’s portrayal of him. It’s been pretty easy for them to tune out inconvenient truths, like the fact that Francis actually does think that marriage is between a man and a woman, because they cannot—or will not—get past the “Who am I to judge?” sound byte.
The right, on the other hand, feels alienated. Many are disappointed that Francis didn’t speak as strongly on life and family issues as he did on other topics. Some are cafeteria Catholics who simply don’t want to acknowledge that economics and the environment fall within the realm of faith and morals. Others are suspicious about Francis’ orthodoxy and faithfulness to Church teaching.
Neither side genuinely trusts Francis. The left “trusts” him because they haven’t really listened to him; their initial shock and indignation at the possibility that he might sympathize with Kim Davis was telling. The right doesn’t trust him because from their perspective, he’s focusing on all the wrong things.
Trust of the Pontiff has been on my mind for a while now. When last year I first heard rumblings of discontent about the Synod on the Family, I wasn’t particularly worried. My first instinct was to shrug and say, “The Holy Spirit’s got this.” After all, a council of experts overwhelmingly recommended to Pope Paul VI that he approve of artificial contraception. We got Humanae Vitae instead. The Church’s intellectual defense of those teachings has only become stronger since that time.
But when I began to see intelligent, level-headed people of faith around me worrying, I started to doubt. Maybe my trust that everything would turn out okay (in the relative short-term, not just at the end of time) wasn’t faith, but naiveté. Maybe I wasn’t giving enough credit to human agency and to the amount of freedom God gives us. And whose side was the pope taking, anyway?
At the end of the day, I trust Pope Francis because I trust that the Holy Spirit guides the Church and listens to our prayers. Whatever his weaknesses as a human being or as a leader, Francis is the Vicar of Christ leading us in this particular time and moment. He takes us out of our comfort zones because it’s his job to challenge us to live the Gospel; a person who doesn’t find him or herself challenged by Francis’ words and example isn’t listening.
My sense is that Francis wants us to live out the Church’s teaching on marriage and family by facing head-on the messy realities of family life, because behind the complex situations are persons who are made to know and love God. None of this is easy or comfortable, and it takes humility to let go of partisan motivations, and trust to get past the political machinations and intrigue.
Pope Francis declared that this coming year would be a Year of Mercy. It’s no coincidence that a crucial component of the devotion to Divine Mercy that St. Faustina inspired is humility; only humility can profess, “Jesus, I trust in You.” May this prayer guide our prayers for a successful outcome to the Synod.