Pope Francis, God and the World (Part 1)
‘Buona sera’ (‘good evening’) does not sound a very holy way to begin your work as a religious leader, but it gives an important hint about the new pope’s understanding of God and the world.
Although Jorge Maria Bergoglio studied and taught theology and philosophy, he has (unlike his immediate predecessors) written no books. So if we want to find out what is important in his thinking, we have to turn to his sermons or interviews – and we have to recognise the theology in his actions.
This was clear from the very moment the new pope stepped on to the balcony. The first thing he saw was a sea of faces: the men, women and children who had waited patiently in the cold and rain to greet him. Popes, bishops, priests and religious only exist because of them. They are the ones who matter most. These are the people of the Gospel gathered (in Francis’ own words) ‘with an open heart, needing the word of God.’ The Pope’s ‘good evening!’ is light-hearted, human and holy, acknowledging the friends of Christ. He asks for their blessing and they give meaning to his own.
We have heard how he encouraged his priests to get out of their presbyteries and talk to people. On the internet we have seen him sitting on the undergrond train chatting to his neighbour. This is a man for whom following Christ means actively meeting those for whom Christ died, whether Christian or Jew, agnostic or believer.
More than anything, though, we hear him challenging himself and us to recognize Christ in the face of the poor and the marginalised – and to act.
In his Lent sermon in 2009 he invites the congregation to notice the beggars crowding the streets. He reminds them with the words of scripture ‘to break their bread with the hungry and shelter the homeless poor’. It is generous sharing that gives meaning to our Lenten Fast.
In his 2010 interviews he talks about terrible, structural economic injustices, soul-destroying social collapse, internecine wars, the degradation of the environment. He suggests these can only be overcome if we all discover a new way of living together: to reach out with generosity, compassion and forgiveness. For Christians, the reason why we must do this is simple. It is the gift we have ourselves received from God.
This sense of gift comes from deep personal experience. One day in confession, the young Jorge Maria received spiritual guidance for the first time. Suddenly he experienced personally God’s grace and mercy. In time he realised that God was calling him to be a priest. That experience of receiving mercy and of then being chosen is captured in his motto miserando et eligendo ‘filled with compassion, and choosing’, which describes the gaze of Jesus on Matthew the tax-collector.
As a Jesuit, he has twice experienced the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola. These begin by awakening awareness of being a sinner yet forgiven. We are then invited to share the loving gaze of God, Father, Son and Spirit on a sea of faces, reflecting the joys and sorrows, the goodness and brutality of the world. We see the Son entering the world as one of us, ‘not to condemn the world, but so that through him, the world might be saved.’
Here we can recognise the centre-point of Francis’ practical theology. Jesus brings the mercy of God to our streets, reaching out to the poor and marginalized, challenging the self-righteous and giving his life to set us free.
Jesus then turns to us, as he turned to Matthew the tax collector, and Jorge Maria the lab technician, and says simply, ‘follow me.’