Parsing Papal Popularity, Part III: Toward a Hermeneutic of Sanity
I had not planned to extend this series to a third post – until I stumbled upon a short and sweet analysis that is so utterly sane that its positive suggestions make an irresistible complement to my more critical breakdowns (here and here) of the ongoing ideological tug-of-war over Pope Francis and how he is interpreted.
I am referring to a simple yet astute article by Kevin Cotter of the college-oriented ministry FOCUS. After noting the controversy that tends to circle around Pope Francis, Cotter offers the following 6 tips for reading him. His point is essentially that the best corrective to misunderstandings of the pope is to make an effort to understand him well ourselves, and he reminds us with a few biblical examples that Jesus too was susceptible to being misunderstood.
The short commentaries are well worth reading, but in brief, his six suggestions in his own words are:
1.Get used to the fact that the media will misconstrue Pope Francis’ words.
2.Read Pope Francis for yourself.
3.Take a look at the recommended Pope Francis reading [with a short list of favorite homilies and addresses].
4.Seek to understand what the pope is and isn’t saying.
5.Take in not only what Pope Francis is saying, but also what he is doing.
6.Don’t be the older son in the story of the Prodigal Son.
Under this final point, Cotter turns to those Catholics who “have been dismayed by Pope Francis because they perceive him to undo the work they have worked hard for in the last few decades.” Addressing in an admirably disarming way those who might identify with that description, Cotter explains,
Pope Francis is trying to welcome people back. He is trying to encounter the world that rarely thinks about Jesus or the Church. He is trying to completely change the Church’s PR that sorely needs a new message. And us? We are…often worried about ourselves. We are worried about that person in the parish who strays outside the boundaries of the Church teachings who might misconstrue the pope’s words and rub it in our face. We are worried about the family member who feels justified thinking that you are a rule Nazi and are trying to be more Catholic than the pope.
In the end, we need to focus on those who need Jesus and not ourselves. We need to follow Pope Francis message to get out of ourselves and to encounter and dialogue.
Some may recall that John Allen recently invoked the same parable, with the same tact and sensitivity. Here is the gist of his reading of things:
Over his first eight months, Francis basically has killed the fatted calf for the prodigal sons and daughters of the post-modern world, reaching out to gays, women, nonbelievers, and virtually every other constituency inside and outside the church that has felt alienated.
There are an awful lot of such prodigals, of course, which helps explain the pope’s massive appeal.
Yet there are also a few Catholics today who feel a bit like the story’s older son, wondering if what they’ve always understood as their loyalty to the church, and to the papacy, is being under-valued.
Without in any way diminishing the enormous good Francis has been doing by reaching out to prodigals – or the “strongly positive” overall vibe he senses within the Vatican – Allen offers an insightful bit of reassurance to the “elder sons” of the Church, citing Francis’ commitment to unity and his political astuteness as “reasons to suspect that over time, he’ll take the sensitivities of these older sons to heart.” Allen is wise to recall the reassurance the father himself gives to his older son in the parable, taking him aside to remind him, “Everything I have is yours.” In other words, whether you are the prodigal seeking welcome after an estrangement or the older son fearing that your loyalty may be going unrecognized, take heart: Pope Francis is pastorally sensitive enough not to want to leave anyone behind.
Not a bad lens for reading the Gospel. Or the pope.