Oh Pope Francis, you have stolen my heart. All I can say is, well played, Holy Spirit, well played indeed. I love how God knows so well what we need and sends it to us without hesitation. I have now been alive for three popes, and I have adored and admired each one in different ways. John Paul II was my spiritual father. I never met the man, but I have always felt very close to him. I fell in love with his theology of marriage, love, and sexuality, and had the man taken the time to write a phone book, I would have found incredible depth in the writing of those names. His charism was inspiring and his enthusiasm for life infectious. Seeing him made me feel young and alive, and for a man in his eighties, who is plagued with Parkinson’s, that’s pretty impressive.
Benedict XVI was different. He did not share the youthful vivaciousness of his predecessor, but he brought a very different passion to the Chair of St. Peter. His incredibly profound love for the Catholic faith was palpable in everything he did. It seemed to pour out of him in the most inconspicuous and German way. He seemed to take very seriously his vocation to both safeguard and transmit the richness of our Catholic faith – from the deep roots of our moral beliefs to the mysterious and at times curious traditions and celebrations that we hold dear. He had a tough job, and he did it well. As the Prefect for the Doctrine of Faith, he had to be the one to protect the teachings of the faith, often perceived as the “bad guy.” Despite his incredibly beautiful writings – so clear and to the point, so easy to read – those who had perceived him as such would not change their minds. Even when his first encyclical came out “Deus Caritas Est,” translated as “God is Love,” his critics could only talk about how strict and cold he was. To me, though, he was a hero. He truly put his vocation to defend the Catholic faith well above his own pride or desire to be loved or accepted. For that reason, I always felt very defensive of him. Perhaps it was because others I knew didn’t seem to like him as much, or maybe it was because I felt that their lack of appreciation for him wasn’t justified, particularly because it was painfully evident that they had never bothered to read a word he had written, but I had very little patience for those who criticized him. I know, though, without a doubt that when he approaches the gates of Heaven, he will be greeted with a resounding “well done, good and faithful servant!”
And now we have Francis, whose motto is “having mercy, He called him.” So humble and simple, his love for the poor is incredibly evident. By his life, by his humble actions just in this first week of his papacy, he has upped the ante for the Catholic faithful. I don’t even think he’s trying to call us to greater holiness by his example, I think he’s just living his life. But I suppose that’s the unintentional effect a holy life has on those around it. Holiness is infectious because it is closeness to Christ, and it therefore radiates joy. Every time I see another video or picture of him serving the poor, or stopping his procession to kiss a very infirmed man in St. Peter’s, my heart swells with pride and joy. This is our pope! This is the Vicar of Christ here on earth! This is the man God has chosen to lead us forward in faith, and in one week, he has gone from “Cardinal who?? Is he from Argentina or Italy??” to the most beloved person on my Facebook news feed. Second, of course, is Justin Timberlake, but I think that’s a whole different kind of love…
But you know my favorite part of this whole adjusting to a new pope process? It’s witnessing the very core, unchanging, unchangeable truth of the Catholic faith. All three of these popes are SO different! They dress differently, they speak differently, they pray differently, they have very different relationships with our Lord, and yet, they love the very same faith. They may show it differently or celebrate it in vastly different ways from one another, but that’s the awesome part: they show us that there are so very many ways to love and serve the Lord while still preserving the one true faith we profess. Their differences are in the details of our faith, but they each love Jesus and His Church with all of their hearts. In their differences, they show us what we do, in fact, profess to believe as Catholics. Their varying styles do not highlight where the other goes wrong, but instead point us to the very core of our beliefs. What is unchanging through the papacies of these three men (as well as the previous 262 men before them) IS the Catholic Church, the Bride of Christ, and that kind of consistency is one for the record books.