THE BEGINNING of Francis’ papacy has changed perceptions of the Catholic Church. When Benedict XVI stood down the media image of the Church was poor. Catholicism was generally regarded as narrow-minded, corrupt and sclerotic. This was unfair to the millions of ordinary Catholics, laity and clergy, who were none of these things, nor was it fair to Benedict, and it concealed a growing desire for renewal.
However, that negative image has been overtaken by the appointment of Francis. What the ordinary people, whether Catholic or not, notice in Francis is his warmth. People quickly came to realise that he likes them – without being sentimental about it, that he loves them – and the love he conveys is akin to the love of God.
This love is particular and personal; above all it is merciful. It accepts human nature as frail. This is a pope who puts his arm around the shoulder. Francis has not changed anything of Catholic doctrine, but he has given it a more compassionate shape by rearranging its priorities.
That says a great deal about his understanding of human beings. They need to be loved; they need to know that God loves them. And like the love of a good parent for a child or each spouse for the other, such love is unconditional.
It is also reciprocal; love freely given generates love in return. There was evidence of this human need to be loved, even this sense that the love of a pope and the love of God are not dissimilar, in public reactions to the papacies of Pope John XXIII and the man quickly dubbed the smiling Pope, John Paul I. And in return, they were loved.
There are parallels in history.
Founders of religious orders drew to themselves a body of initial followers because of the attractiveness of their personalities, above all their warmth and humility. It is irrelevant to ask whether St Francis or St Ignatius Loyola were the progressives or conservatives of their day, and it is just as irrelevant to apply that test to the Jesus one encounters in the gospels.
Neither of those categories explains the transforming effect Christ Jesus had, which was not about policy but about love. He was the messenger indeed, he was himself the message – of God’s love for the world and everyone in it. That does not fall within the categories of left or right. It unites and transcends them. And that is the effect Pope Francis seems to be having. 29/11/13
Peter Knott SJ