Pope Francis has clearly gone out of his way to project an image of the Church as a merciful, reconciling community. On a grand level he initiated in 2015 a Jubilee Year with the Papal bull, Misericordiae Vultus and the Face of Mercy. On a practical level, he has celebrated Mass in prisons, washed the feet of the homeless and has regularly mixed with crowds where he was recently bitten by a baby! The Pontiff’s universal regard for migrants is regularly featured by the media along with his interest in the earth’s climate. The Holy Father’s concern to address marital irregularities is thought by some to be too merciful. And Pope Francis’ mention of abortion in the same breath as other modern abuses is again thought by some to be not harsh enough of a judgment on this major evil.
The Holy Father’s most recent apostolic exhortation Gaudete Et Exsultate (Rejoice and be Glad) on the call to holiness in today’s world is in total accord with his earlier efforts to promote the Catholic Church as a considerate, understanding and sympathetic community. In fact, His Holiness frankly acknowledges that this latest writing is more about the effects of holiness rather than the path to holiness: “What follows is not meant to be a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification. My modest goal is to reassess the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities.” Pope Francis accordingly selects two familiar passages from St. Matthew’s Gospel account, the Beatitudes and the Last Judgment, as guides on how holiness might be expressed in the modern age.
The Pope understands the eight Beatitudes from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount to be “a Christian’s identity card.” In the Beatitudes is found “a portrait of the Master, which we are called to reflect in our daily lives.” Poverty of spirit in the Pope’s mind is “a radiant interior freedom,” which St. Ignatius knew as a “holy indifference,” freeing the soul from material excesses so “the Lord can enter with his perennial newness.” Meekness is another form in interior poverty where the human tendency “to dominate others” is renounced in favor of “tenderness” toward a neighbor’s faults.
Those who mourn will forego the “entertainment, pleasure, diversion and escape” that the world prefers and face honestly and helpfully the “sickness or sorrow” that plagues much of society. A hunger for “righteousness” or justice means first of all that Christians themselves “are just in their decisions,” especially toward the most vulnerable. “Seek justice, correct oppression, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow,” the Pope quotes Isaiah.
Pope Francis would like the Church to understand itself as “an army of the forgiven,” so that such merciful believers can then extend the mercy they have received from God toward their neighbor. Purity of heart is a temperament that is free of all falsehood, all deceit, all foolish thoughts. This is why the “pure in heart” will “see God.” They have no distractions. The “peacemakers” are blessed because they build “friendship in society,” not only on a grand political scale but also, maybe especially, on a neighborhood level. The Pope actually cites gossip as a foe of peace. The “persecuted” are blessed because they “take seriously their commitment to God and to others,” even when their steadfastness is not valued. Persecution sadly still manifests itself in the shedding of blood but also in “the form of gibes that try to caricature our faith and make us seem ridiculous.”
Pope Francis grasps the Final Judgment scene in Matthew 25 as a specification of how the Beatitudes play out in daily life: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink...” The Pontiff expresses it best himself: “If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out, or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space. Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the Father, an image of God, a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ. That is what it is to be a Christian! Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being?”
As panhandlers increasingly beg at Rhode Island’s intersections, these are tough words to embrace. But the Pope does not back down: “We may think that we give glory to God only by our worship and prayer, or simply by following certain ethical norms. It is true that the primacy belongs to our relationship with God, but we cannot forget that the ultimate criterion on which our lives will be judged is what we have done for others.”
Pope Francis’ own practical charisma, hands-on mercy, is often found picturesquely in the media but now it is revealed more pointedly in his own writings.