Francis Is a Rock Star

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to celebrate Mass in Lampedusa, Italy. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to celebrate Mass in Lampedusa, Italy. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Well, it’s official. Pope Francis is a hit.

Esquire magazine, not exactly an outlet that praises the Catholic Church on a regular basis, highlighted some of the reasons why Francis is so “awesome”:

”He has said that he believes priests should be ‘shepherds with the smell of the sheep’ and he is living that way. He has, pointedly, not moved into the papal apartments, remaining at a cheap hotel where reportedly he eats breakfast with ordinary people. He refuses to take the papal limousine, traveling by minibus instead. More significantly, on Holy Thursday this year, Pope Francis became the first Pope in history to wash the feet of a woman. Not only did he wash the feet of a woman, but that woman was a Muslim. Not only was she a Muslim woman, she was a female inmate at a local prison. He has become famous in Rome as the ‘chatty’ Pope, stopping to embrace children with disabilities.”

Just yesterday, the Italian edition of Vanity Fair chose Francis as its person of the year, noting his humility and authenticity. If that isn’t surprising enough, the article included some observations from Elton John, a not infrequent critic of the Church for its hostility toward gay and lesbian people. The pop star said of the pope:

“Francis is a miracle of humility in an era of vanity.”

And that the pope’s

“beacon of hope will bring more light than any advancement of science, because no drug has the power of love.”

The list goes on, of course. News emerged that Francis has eschewed expensive, state-of-the-art vehicles preferred by some of his predecessors, instead driving around in an older Ford Focus. He said that whenever priests are tempted to have a luxury car, they should remember the many around the world without food. Oh, and he was driving in that $16,000 car to an island region where impoverished and suffering migrants seek entry to Europe. Then he invited 200 homeless people to dine at the Vatican, reminding them that God’s house is their house, too.

OK, I’ll admit it, I’ve got a pope crush.

So what’s the pope to do with this fame, love, respect, and admiration? How will he choose to exercise his authority, and by virtue of his popularity, his power? Is this level of admiration sustainable, and if so, what good can it yield? Francis certainly doesn’t need my advice, but below are a few thoughts on how the pope might continue capturing the world’s attention, and through that, spreading the Gospel.

Continue to lead by example.
Have any of Pope Francis’s actions caused you to stop and think before you act? When you walk by a homeless person on the street, do you now consider giving money, or at least acknowledging him or her, instead of turning away? Do you now give thought as to how you can stop wasting money or resources when so many are in need? Have you reconsidered what constitutes tragedy, a dip in the stock market versus the death of starving children? If yes, chances are that the pope’s own actions have influenced your own. Imagine the powerful effect Francis could have if even a fraction of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics modified their behavior even just a bit.

Steer clear of direct political involvement.
Politics, simply put, is about winners and losers. Except when the Church involves itself. Then the Church always loses. Political tides change quickly, and if the Church aligns itself with a political party, movement, or figure, it is guaranteed that half the population will be turned off, during the political debate, and even more will hold the Church in contempt when the mood changes. The pope so far hasn’t been overtly political. He’s been prophetic, and in order to be effective, he should keep that up, while resisting the temptation to go political. It will be interesting to see what Pope Francis says about the political upheaval overtaking Brazil, with street protests now a common occurrence, on his upcoming visit for World Youth Day.

Extend the Gospel message to previously unwelcomed communities.
When the pope was first elected, he was an unknown. As such, the media looked into his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires for clues about his papacy. One of the items that struck a chord with audiences was his chastising priests who wouldn’t baptize the babies of unwed mothers. A message of inclusion for previously unwelcomed individuals went a long way. Imagine how much more powerful that message would be coming from the pope. Might he extend this same sort of welcome to gays and lesbians, the divorced, women, non-Catholic Christians? Who else might he include?

Engage in real Church reform.
Even some of those who love Pope Francis are still holding out a bit, hoping the new pope engages in some much-needed Church reform. He’s already shown signs he’s serious about this, so we’re headed in the right direction. He’s assembled a group of eight cardinals, all with limited ties to the corruption in the Roman curia, to serve as his advisors in these matters. He’s fired a couple of key bureaucrats from the Vatican bank and has hinted at reviewing audits to see who’s been doing what. There’s more on the to-do list, and concrete action that tries to stem the flow of corruption and mediocrity in the Vatican would win over lots of doubters.

Keep surprising us.
Finally, Pope Francis should just keep doing what he does best: living out the Gospel. If he does, we’ll continue to be inspired and surprised at new ways to think about how we live our own lives. How the pope lives his vocation seems simple, like the Gospel, but in today’s world, that’s a radically surprising way to live life.

Michael O’Loughlin in a regular contributor to Busted Halo. You can read his Church & State blog about faith and politics here.