The Word Among Us

January 2014 Issue

A Friend Who Can Challenge

A new book distills the wisdom of Pope Francis.

By: Jill A. Boughton

A Friend Who Can Challenge: A new book distills the wisdom of Pope Francis. by Jill A. Boughton

“Have you read any of Pope Francis’ addresses or homilies?” my friend asked.

“Not yet,” I replied sheepishly. I had read Lumen Fidei, which is superb. But, of course, that encyclical also showcases the thoughts and words of Pope Emeritus Benedict.

“I’ll send you a link,” she offered.

I was intrigued but never followed up—I much prefer reading printed books to following links online. Therefore, I was delighted to discover a new book that includes excerpts from many of the Holy Father’s homilies and addresses: Pope Francis Speaks to Our Hearts: Words of Challenge and Hope. As my friend promised, the pope’s reflections are very insightful.

Nuggets of Wisdom. At first, I was disappointed that most of the passages are quite brief. But this is a pope who can say so much in just a few words! For example, in one entry, Francis profoundly analyzes the “real crisis” that underlies the economic and work crisis of our age: “What is in crisis is the value of the human person.”

I found myself lingering on telling phrases like the “cascade of tenderness” that God pours out on us, “the globalization of indifference” that characterizes a “culture of comfort,” and on images like Christ as our “roped guide climbing a mountain.” Favorite themes reappear in fresh ways: the need for a personal encounter and relationship with Jesus, the transformation of the desert places in our hearts, reliance on the Holy Spirit, God’s way of surprising us and making things new, the dynamism of hope.

Again and again, I found myself saying, “I never thought about it that way!” Pope Francis pictures Jesus looking at the five loaves and the hungry crowd and thinking, “This is providence!” When speaking of Mary’s ability to “keep these things and ponder them in her heart,” he points out that Joseph did this, too. His reflection on Mary draws on the way mothers encourage their children to make wise, independent decisions. He suggests that we address Mary as “O Lady who goes in haste”—after all, “When her children are in difficulty, when they need something and call on her, she hurries to them.”

In so many ways, Pope Francis strikes out in a refreshing new direction. Yet he is in profound unity with his predecessor. In one meditation—about the importance of consulting the Holy Spirit for decisions of conscience—Francis offers just one “great example” of discernment: Pope Benedict’s decision to step down from the papacy.

Friendly Helps and Challenges. As this book shows over and over again, Pope Francis is a pastor with a knack for friendly, down-to-earth encouragement. His style is informal and passionate, more like a personal encounter than a reasoned discourse. He repeats phrases and sentences, sometimes urging his audience to repeat with him. He dialogues with us and shows how we can talk to God in a fruitful way.

He asks many questions that invite prayerful reflection: “How can I become a little poorer, to be more like Jesus?” “Do I feel part of the family of the Church?” “Do we tend to stay closed in on ourselves, on our group, or do we let the Holy Spirit open us to mission?” Are we open to “God’s surprises,” or are we “barricaded in transient structures which have lost their capacity for openness to what is new?”

In some excerpts, Francis freely shares from his own experience. He tells us not only how he came to choose the name Francis but also what his grandmother taught him about Good Friday. We learn that he wanted to be a missionary to Japan and why his request was gently denied. And who would have expected the head of the Church to admit that he sometimes dozes off during evening prayer before the Blessed Sacrament!

Pope Francis gives advice that is simple and practical, but challenging, too. When you give alms, look the recipient in the eyes. If you can’t stop being angry with someone, redouble your intercessory prayers for that person. The mission of a Christian is to “find the Lord who consoles us and go to console the people of God.” Never, never gossip.

Sometimes he made this reader squirm. Since he sees participation in politics as a Christian duty, I can’t just blame politicians for their apparent unwillingness to work for the common good. He warns against “the temptation to withdraw into our own plans, which end by shutting out God’s creative action.”

Deeper into Prayer. This book is set up in a very helpful way. The excerpts are arranged topically, in twelve chapters. The headings pick up the most important thought from each meditation, which makes it very easy to revisit your favorites. Sources are listed, too, so that you can see what particular group was being addressed, on what occasion.

I will return to this little book often, mulling over insights that have stuck in my memory, looking for others that speak to a particular need or situation—and grateful that I don’t have to search the Web to find them. Pope Francis Speaks to Our Hearts definitely spoke to my heart. I hope it will do the same for you.

Jill Boughton lives in South Bend, Indiana.

Pope Francis Speaks to Our Hearts is available from The Word Among Us online. To read an excerpt, please visit our website.