A strange moment occurred this evening – the Pope made me cry.
Actually, this was not the first time a pope made me cry. Engaging the broader Catholic world since middle school, I personally knew of popes only in the repressive contexts of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Tears then were from frustration and hurt about the inability of these two men, and the bureaucratic system behind them, to truly love as Christ did.
Tonight, the tears were peculiar though and the reasons behind them very different. As a blogger on Catholic LGBT issues for Bondings 2.0, I’ve closely followed Francis’ papacy as it begins. Cautious optimism accompanied an intellectualized understanding what this man may mean for Catholicism, but always kept at arm’s length from my interior life. Since March I wondered when the ‘other shoe’ would come crashing down from the Vatican, shattering the high hopes many gambled on Francis.
I often hear older friends speak of John XXIII as inspiring them in their 20s with his pastoral tone, joy and love, and openness to the world. I knew this phenomenon happened, but I could not relate in my life. I could not, thought attempting diligently, comprehend how a pope could be a source of inspiration (other than working to combat their misguided power) or contribute to my life positively. Tonight, that reality changed when I read of his actions with Italian students at Jesuit schools.
Tonight, the hope and optimism since Francis’ election came exuding out of me having pierced my interior life against all efforts to separate them. His consistency with being Catholic and challenging our world, while expressing love and pastoral care unbridled by regulation seems genuine. It seems real and lasting, and for the first time I glimpse at John XXIII’s impact on those in their 20s during Vatican II. I read these words, spoken to the students:
“When a student doubting his faith asked for words of encouragement, he likened the faith a long walk. ‘To walk is an art,’ he said, ‘To walk is the art of looking at the horizon, thinking about where I want to go but also enduring the fatigue. And many times, the walk is difficult, it is not easy… There is darkness… even days of failure… one falls…
“‘But always think this: do not be afraid of failure. Do not be afraid of falling. In the art of walking, what is important is not avoiding the fall but not remaining fallen…Get up quickly, continue on, and go…But it is also terrible to walk alone, terrible and boring. Walking in community with friends, with those who love us, this helps us and helps us get to the end.’”
Throwing protocol out, Francis answered ten unscripted questions from children after calling prepared remarks “a little boring.” One student today said, “You are like a child.” It made me call to mind Matthew 19 where Jesus says of the children, at first being driven away by the religious authorities, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them: for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Maybe that is the blessing of Francis. He reached out to God’s children, spoke to them with a tenderness and simplicity we hear Jesus preach in because its roots are true love. He speaks to the difficulties faith entails in an honest way, not pretending Catholic life is always joyful or rewarding and allowing for doubt, even falling. In a world torn apart by superficiality and disposability (another theme he’s been mentioning!), Pope Francis is preaching authentically with the people in our language and speaking to those most deep and unarticulated desires sometimes best expressed through the eyes of childhood.
For the first time in my 23 year old life, a pope inspires me and calls me to more as a Catholic with his witness. Where this journey ends is unknown, and certainly Pope Francis and I do not agree on everything – yet, my hope grows because Pope Francis the Child is a companion on our common journey and not a papal father from above.