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Francis: A Pope who shows us God’s style

Julian Paparella

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Photo by Photo by Dhcatólico on Cathopic.
As we celebrate 10 years of Pope Francis, our minds go back to the evening of March 13, 2013, when he first appeared on the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica. He was dressed in the simple white cassock, without much of the regalia that popes have usually donned. His first words to us were “Dear brothers and sisters, good evening!” He went on to say that this time the cardinals had chosen a pope “almost from the ends of the earth” – the first pope from the new world. And before giving us his first blessing as pope, he asked us to pray for him, to bless him so that he could bless us.
This fleeting but precious moment is a snapshot of the whole ministry of Pope Francis as Successor to Saint Peter. It has been said that crowds came to see John Paul II, that they came to listen to Benedict XVI, and that people come to touch Pope Francis. He is an accessible pope, who puts himself within our reach, by his words and his deeds.
So how have our hearts been touched by Pope Francis? How has he touched your life and our world?
One way of seeing the impact of Pope Francis is through the uniqueness of his style. He is a pope who reaches out to embrace people, and who lets himself be embraced. He is a pope who lives in the Vatican guesthouse, not in an apostolic palace. He is a pope who washes the feet of prisoners and the elderly on Holy Thursday. He is the first pope to choose the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, a man of peace, of Gospel simplicity, of the poor. He is a pope who has the smell of his sheep, and who encourages others to do likewise. 
Time and time again, Pope Francis has spoken about the style of God, which he summarizes in three key words: closeness, tenderness, and compassion:
"God’s style is closeness, a special, compassionate and tender closeness. These are three words that define the life of a priest, and of a Christian as well, because they are taken precisely from God’s style: closeness, compassion and tenderness."
Pope Francis shows us by his words and example that God’s style is not aloof, distant, detached, disinterested, indifferent, or judgemental. Rather, our God is close, tender, and compassionate. Having had the opportunity to see Pope Francis up close and to encounter him on several occasions, I have been touched by the way that Pope Francis witnesses to this style of God not only with his words and teaching, but most of all with his life and his way of being with people.  


For Canadians, the greatest sign of Pope Francis’ closeness will remain his visit to Canada in July 2022. Despite his ailing health, he came on a pilgrimage of reconciliation and healing with the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. The Pope came to tend to wounds that are sadly ignored and so often neglected. He came to encounter the survivors of the residential school system on their own lands. He set us an example of what it means to live the parable of the Good Samaritan: be close to one another, heal each other’s wounds, and walk forward with one another. Pope Francis calls us to be close to people who are on the peripheries, not only by going out to them, but also by bringing them to the centre – of our hearts, our homes, our society, and our Church. (Let us Dream, p. 18)


How powerful are the many images of Pope Francis embracing people with disabilities, the poor, the sick, the elderly, and those who are so often rejected or forgotten.. We can think of Francis embracing the boy at a parish in Rome, when he asked the pope if his deceased father could go to heaven even if he was not Christian. We can recall how the Pope was moved by children in the Philippines, who asked him why God allows so many boys and girls to live on the street. Or how he knelt down to kiss the feet of warring political leaders from South Sudan in a plea for peace. Pope Francis calls us to transform the world by the power of tenderness:
"True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness." (Evangelii Gaudium, #88)


Perhaps the characteristic of God that Pope Francis has most emphasized is mercy. In the middle of his pontificate, he declared a Jubilee of Mercy, calling the whole Church “to gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives.” (Misericordiae Vultus, #3) By being close, Francis lets himself be moved with compassion, which is the source of his tenderness.
The Pope himself received his vocation at the age of seventeen, in an encounter with God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Confession on the Feast of St. Matthew. Like Matthew, the teenage Jorge Mario Bergoglio felt that God had mercy on him and chose him, which is the meaning of his motto: Miserando atque eligendo. In his book, entitled The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis speaks of “the lengths to which God goes to enter the heart of man,” and “to find that small opening” – that crack in the door of our hearts – that God uses to forgive and have mercy on us. (p. 33-34) In one of his earliest Angelus addresses, he said,
"God never ever tires of forgiving us! […] The problem is that we ourselves tire, we do not want to ask, we grow weary of asking for forgiveness. […] Let us never tire, let us never tire! He is the loving Father who always pardons, who has that heart of mercy for us all. And let us too learn to be merciful to everyone. Let us invoke the intercession of Our Lady who held in her arms the Mercy of God made man."


There is a fourth word that describes not only God’s style but also Pope Francis’: joy! Indeed, could we not say that closeness, tenderness, and compassion are the unsung pathways to finding Gospel joy? 
Francis’ magisterium is full of joy. The blueprint of his pontificate was The Joy of the GospelEvangelii Gaudium, in which he called us to be constantly renewed and transformed by the joy of encountering Christ. His landmark document on the family was entitled The Joy of LoveAmoris Laetitia, in which he calls families to live out the Good News of God’s love for humanity.
His exhortation on the call to holiness, Rejoice and Be GladGaudete et Exsultate – reminds us that God’s holiness is reflected not only in those who are canonized or beatified, but in those “saints next door” like our own parents, grandparents, neighbours, and the sick (#6-9). Francis teaches us that “holiness is the most attractive face of the Church” and that living the Beatitudes makes us more alive and more human.
Even his new constitution for Catholic universities and theology faculties is called The Joy of the TruthVeritatis Gaudium. It creates a genuine paradigm shift in our way of dialoguing with the culture, rather than presuming that the truth is ours to possess and impose on others. Here and now, in the midst of today’s world, Pope Francis is leading us to discover the joy of walking together, as a Church and as one human family, on the challenging but promising path of synodality. He opened the Synod on Synodality with these words:
"Dear brothers and sisters, may this Synod be a true season of the Spirit! For we need the Spirit, the ever new breath of God, who sets us free from every form of self-absorption, revives what is moribund, loosens shackles and spreads joy."
As we mark ten years of his ministry as Pope, let us thank God for Francis’ witness to Jesus as a pastor who lives the style of the Gospel. Let us be touched by the ways that we have witnessed God’s style living and active in our Holy Father.  More importantly, let us humbly receive God’s closeness, tenderness, compassion, and joy in our own lives, and be encouraged and moved to live out God’s style in our daily relationships with the people around us, beginning with those most in need. May Francis’ example inspire us to let our hearts be touched by Jesus, so that we may go out to touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters in humanity.
Father of tender mercy, pour into our hearts the Spirit of Your love, so that we can follow Jesus as we walk with our brothers and sisters. Bless our Pope Francis, and make his ministry bear much fruit in the mission of Your Church, for the life of the world that You so love. Amen.

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