The Word Among Us

June 2015 Issue

A Listening Pope

The “story” of Pope Francis

By: Fr. Guy Noonan

A Listening Pope: The “story” of Pope Francis by Fr. Guy Noonan

We all know that Pope Francis is very popular all around the world. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that he is enjoying an 84-percent approval rating in Europe. Even in places that are less Christian or where he is less well-known, the pope is still popular, with 44 percent of Africans and 41 percent of Asians having a favorable impression.

Even non-Catholics are embracing this pope in a new way. His video message about Christian unity was eagerly received at an Evangelical conference hosted by Kenneth Copeland. Even Timothy George, executive editor for Christianity Today, called the Holy Father “our Francis, too.”

In my little corner of the world—Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in St. Augustine, Florida—I can say that Pope Francis has clearly captured people’s hearts—even those who no longer practice their faith. I think part of the reason is that Francis can act so “unpopelike.” We see it in his decision to live in a small apartment in the Vatican. We see it in the beat-up car he drives. We see it in his plainspoken homilies and in his impromptu letters and telephone calls to everyday people.

So considering how popular the pope is and considering the impact he has made on the world, I was more than happy to be invited by The Word Among Us to share my reflections on Francis and his teachings.

A Name and a Prayer. In the two years since his election, Pope Francis has quickly become a hero of the faith, and like other heroes, his story touches us just as deeply as his teachings. We know about the impact that his grandmother’s faith had on him. We are attuned to his past work in the slums of Buenos Aires. We pay close attention to his travels. We enjoy the images of this humble servant of God surrounded by the faithful And we are touched by his humanity.

Clearly, Francis’ story continues to move us, and he seems to recognize this. From the day he stepped onto the balcony in St. Peter’s Square, Francis has been telling us a story about himself, a story that began when he announced the name he chose for himself: “I wish to be called Francis.”

That, I believe, was the pope’s first message to us, and it was a clever play on words. The name Francis reminds me of the Latin word, francus, which means to be free, open, and outspoken—a frank person. We also know that he chose the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the “little poor man” who is known for his simple faith and his deep love for the poor.

So from the very beginning, Pope Francis has been giving us clues about the kind of pope he wants to be and about the story he wants to tell. He wants to speak frankly and clearly in a language that all people, even the poor and uneducated, can understand.

Then, still on that balcony, Pope Francis told a little more of his story. Tradition asks a newly elected pope to bless all the people of Rome gathered in the square below. But Francis gave this tradition a little twist: “I want to ask you a favor,” he said. “Before the Bishop blesses the people, I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me—the prayer of the people for their bishop. Let us say this prayer, your prayer for me, in silence.” Then he bowed his head and humbly received the prayers of the people.

I think that both of these gestures—taking the name Francis and receiving the people’s prayers—tell the story of a man who has been humbled in life and whose humility has shaped his character.

A Wounded Healer. In his first full-length interview, Francis was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” After a long pause, he replied, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition.” While it may be something pious you would expect a pope to say, Francis insisted, “It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner. . . . I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” And that identification as a sinner who has received mercy can be traced to an important period in his life.

Francis often speaks about his time as head of the Jesuits in Argentina. He was only thirty-six when he was elected to this post, and it did not go very well. He said, in fact, that the whole thing was “insane” because he didn’t know how to use authority to bring people together. He confessed that he was autocratic and heavy-handed and that his brother Jesuits had him removed and sent to the city of Córdoba as a kind of exile.

This experience of rejection had a profound impact on Francis. It prompted a careful examination of conscience that led to a deeper conversion. It softened him and moved him to think more broadly about the people he was ministering to. It also sent him out into the city, where he began to have more meaningful contact with the poor.

Córdoba was a turning point, for it taught him the compassion and openheartedness that he is now known for. What a blessing this is for the Church! Here is a man who can relate to being scorned and rejected, a man whose wounds have enabled him to become a source of healing and encouragement for so many people.

I’ve discovered that because Francis is so open about his story—the bad along with the good—people tend to be more open to what he says. They find inspiration in his example, and they follow him with a mixture of friendship and admiration. Francis is showing a kind of leadership that’s based on humility and sharing, a leadership that inspires people to follow because they see in him a reflection of their own successes and challenges.

A Listening Pope, a Listening Pastor. Francis isn’t interested in just telling people his story. He has become very interested in listening to the stories of other people as well. In Córdoba and Buenos Aires, he started listening to the poor and homeless. As pope, he makes surprise phone calls to people who write to him, and he listens to them as much as he prays with them and offers counsel. He makes it a point to have lunch with the workers on the Vatican grounds, the homeless of Rome, and similar groups. In preparation for the General Synod, he even asked that a survey be sent out to everyone in the Church so that he could hear stories from ordinary Catholics about the joys and challenges they face in family life.

This is quite a change from the young Jesuit provincial who didn’t listen to anyone else and imposed his rules with what he has called an “iron fist”! And that change inspires me to listen more closely to the people in my parish—and to encourage them to listen to each other. In fact, when people come to me, I’ve begun to ask them, “Do you know that your life is a story? That it’s a story about God’s work in this world?”

What’s Your Story? I believe that every pope’s story has a special message for the Church. The story of Pope John Paul II’s courage and steadfastness under Communist rule in Poland told us, “Don’t be afraid to put out into the deep.” Pope Benedict XVI’s long history of theological study helped us guard against a “dictatorship of relativism.” And now with Pope Francis’ story of humility and encounter with the poor, we hear that “a little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just.”

But it’s not just popes whose stories speak to the world. I like telling my parishioners that their stories are just as important. It’s true for all of us. Our lives are not just a series of events that follow each other. Every one of us is living out the story of a loving Father drawing his child close to his heart.

It’s true: each of us has a story, and we are constantly sharing that story with the world. When we are praying at Mass, taking care of our children, or working at our jobs, even when we are relaxing and enjoying free time, we are telling the people around us who we are and who we want to become. We are telling them about our love for God and our desire to follow him.

So let me ask you the same questions I ask myself and my parishioners: “Are you satisfied with your story? Are you telling the best one that you can?”

It’s a good question to ask ourselves. It’s also a question I imagine Pope Francis asks himself every day.