A week in and it’s clear: Pope Francis is a man of surprises.
It started minutes after his election to the See of Saint Peter. He appeared on the loggia in a simple white cassock to greet the hundreds of thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square. Before blessing the faithful and the merely curious in the traditional formula, Francis asked the crowd to bless him first in silent prayer. And for 30 seconds, they and hundreds of millions of people watching throughout the world joined in silent prayer for the new Holy Father.
That moment evidenced that Francis is clearly just that: holy. His closeness with all of us during these days of great trial and possibility is so clear. His predecessor, Benedict the Meek, was a brilliant theologian who taught the Church, especially young Catholics, who Jesus Christ was and continues to be. In his first encyclical, Benedict said that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
Benedict’s right. Our faith is more than an intellectual tradition or a school of philosophy. It is first and foremost the lived expression of a relationship with a very human person, Jesus Christ.
Francis, too, is very human. He’s had a girlfriend. He’s had his heart broken. He’s gone dancing. He’s made mistakes. He’s dealt with the annoyances of public transportation. He’s ministered to those who are oppressed. He’s one of us.
For weeks, the pundits in the media — some knowledgeable, others not — have told us what we needed in the next pope: a world-class CEO, a distinguished public orator and a rock star, among other qualities. I’m not sure yet Francis is any of those. But I do know this: he’s a man of God and a companion of Jesus. Benedict taught us about Jesus, and Francis will now show us his face.
And how will he do this?
If Francis’ Jesuit (shorthand for the “Society of Jesus”) roots tell us anything, it will be through silence, prayer, and paying close attention to God laboring with us in all things of daily life. These were the tools of choice that Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of Pope Francis’ Jesuit order, used to form his men.
The Jesuit’s worldwide leader, Father Adolfo Nicolas, recently said that the Jesuits and their companions ought to “be the silence the world hates.” This lack of silence, Nicolas argues, is leading to a globalization of superficiality — an era in which depth of thought and the authenticity of human relationships is slowly being short-circuited by a combination of rapid social connectivity and a dizzying pluralism of choices and opportunities. Of this era, Nicolas says:
[When] one can ‘cut-and-paste’ without the need to think critically or write accurately or come to one’s own careful conclusions… [w]hen… the ugly or unpleasant sounds of the world can be shut out by one’s MP3 music player, then one’s vision, one’s perception of reality, one’s desiring can also remain shallow.
When one can become ‘friends’ so quickly and so painlessly with mere acquaintances or total strangers on one’s social networks — and if one can so easily ‘unfriend’ another without the hard work of encounter or, if need be, confrontation and then reconciliation — then relationships can also become superficial.
As a young priest for the Society of Jesus, Bergoglio fought against this emerging dictatorship of superficiality by leading hundreds of first-year Jesuits on a 30-day silent retreat, a retreat he himself has made at least two times in his life. This spirituality teaches us that if we’re quiet enough, engage in prayer, and start paying close attention we can start to experience God in all things, especially in the darkest places of our lives and of the world.
Francis’s motto in Latin expresses this: miserando atque eligendo — which loosely translates to “lowly, yet chosen.” For Jesuits — and in fact for all Christians — the God who created us is intimately caught up in the details of the world and is especially close to his children when they suffer or are oppressed. It is likely that Francis will be long remembered for his surprises, his humility and his closeness to the ordinary people of the Church, especially the young. (He already is).
But I humbly suggest the most significant part of his papacy will be something even more subtle: his gift of silence to the world. Silence is the beginning of the remedy to this emerging dictatorship of superficiality — which is being fueled by life’s ever-increasing pace.
In a world that leaves precious little room for religion or authentic human relationships, silence gives breathing room for God, for prayer, and for community. The silence that Francis called for last week was pregnant with meaning for me. In that intimate moment, I felt so clearly God’s closeness through our new Holy Father.
In these days of great fanfare where we once again celebrate the faith of the apostles, the faith that continues to touch lives throughout the world, Francis is showing us that the heart of this Church is an experience with Jesus and the Gospel he proclaimed.
As we seek what Francis has sought throughout his life — the face of Christ — I say we take a cue from our new pope and spend some time over the next few days in silence and try to become ever more aware of God’s closeness to the human family, especially in those who suffer and are marginalized. That way, we can stand together with Francis and people of all traditions to make of this blessed, but broken world something all the more blessed still.