You could barely check your Facebook news feed or glance at a television last week without witnessing nonstop coverage of Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. Throughout his time in Washington D.C., New York City and Philadelphia, worldwide reporters, both professional and amateur, were hanging on his every word and footstep.
Yes, it was Francis’ first visit to the United States and only the seventh official papal visit to the U.S. since the U.S. established full diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1984. But the question still stands: why are we so captivated by Pope Francis?
It could be because he auctioned off his custom Dyna Super Glide Harley Davidson for charity in 2014. It could also be because he worked as a bouncer in nightclubs in Buenos Aires and says kicking people out of clubs helped teach him how to welcome people back into the church when he became a priest. It could be that he declared that scientific theories of evolution and the Big Bang are not inconsistent with the existence of a creator God. It could be that he drives a used car instead of the papal Mercedes or resides in the Vatican guest house instead of the papal apartments. It could be because he regularly engages atheists in conversation and urged Catholics not to condemn or judge homosexuals. And it could absolutely be because he washed and kissed the feet of prisoners, embraced a severely disfigured man and has personally spoken over the phone to women across the world who have been victims of rape or experienced abortions.
But when you truly boil it all down, I can only come to one conclusion: the world is captivated by Pope Francis because he shows us the God that we all hope for deep down but that the Christian church — or at least the mainstream and authoritative chunks of the Christian church — just won’t quite verify for us. Pope Francis verifies it, and he makes no reservation about doing so.
Last Wednesday, he delivered a homily at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. and summed up the mission of the God of Jesus in this way:
Jesus did not provide a short list of who is, or is not, worthy of receiving his message and his presence. Instead, he always embraced life as he saw it. In faces of pain, hunger, sickness and sin. In faces of wounds, of thirst, of weariness, doubt and pity. Far from expecting a pretty life, smartly-dressed and neatly groomed, he embraced life as he found it. It made no difference whether it was dirty, unkempt, broken. Jesus said: Go out and tell the good news to everyone. Go out and in my name embrace life as it is, and not as you think it should be. Go out to the highways and byways, go out to tell the good news fearlessly, without prejudice, without superiority, without condescension, to all those who have lost the joy of living. Go out to proclaim the merciful embrace of the Father. Go out to those who are burdened by pain and failure, who feel that their lives are empty, and proclaim the folly of a loving Father who wants to anoint them with the oil of hope, the oil of salvation. Go out to proclaim the good news that error, deceitful illusions and falsehoods do not have the last word in a person’s life. Go out with the ointment which soothes wounds and heals hearts.
When did this become a radical or subversive thing for a Christian, let alone a Pope, to say?
Now more than ever, the elephant in the room of the world is the glaring discrepancy between God’s infinitely expansive heart and the cold, cramped one that the church has crafted for God and paraded before humanity as some bizarre means of grace and wholeness.
Pope Francis is simply calling out the elephant in the room. He is the one saying, “It’s not too good to be true.” He’s the one telling the world to breathe one big sigh of relief instead of sucking in its gut for the harsh, critical eye of God. He’s the one reminding us that this world and everyone in it is not only good enough for God but is also God’s greatest love and source of joy, especially when it ensures wholeness and justice for those who have most been denied it. He’s the one helping the world remember, as Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, that the story of Jesus and the cross is the story of “how God would rather die than be in our sin-accounting business anymore.”
But the God who not only welcomes but delights in people who are atheist, homosexual, convicted criminals, dirt poor, disfigured, transgender or addicted is not just the God of liberal outliers. That God is not just the God of Senate democrats, of hippie churches preaching peace, of addicts in Alcoholics Anonymous, of open and affirming denominations like the United Church of Christ, Alliance of Baptists or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or even of Pope Francis — who, by the way, is not really a liberal at all.
That God is the God of Jesus. And that’s the best news I know, that God’s heart will always be warmer and infinitely more expansive than we grasp, so that everybody — no matter who we are, where we are, what we believe or what brokenness we’re in — may have grace, wholeness and life.
But why should Pope Francis have all the fun of proclaiming this God to the world in quirky and rebellious ways?