Pope Francis Presents a Challenge (en español)      

By Susan E. Wills

March 18, 2013

The secular media are still grappling with the challenge of fitting Pope Francis into an ideological box. Liberal, conservative, traditional, progressive, compassionate, doctrinaire?  

Clearly “authentic Catholic” is not a category with which they are familiar.

What to make of a man who immerses himself in the lives and suffering of those whom some regard as “discardables”—slum-dwellers, street children, AIDs patients, the neglected elderly—bringing them faith, hope, companionship, wisdom and a sense of their human dignity, and who, at the same time, forcefully condemns today’s “solutions” to the “problem” of discardables— contraception, abortion and euthanasia?

The journalist F.P. Dunne coined a phrase about a century ago that could apply to Francis during his years as the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, while he steadfastly defended human life against every kind of abuse: He “comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.”

For example, he decried warehousing the elderly: “We put them away in geriatrics facilities like one puts away an overcoat in the summer. … because they are ‘disposable,’ ‘useless’.” He condemned “clandestine euthanasia” where “social services pay up to a certain point; if you pass it, ‘die, you are very old’.”

He repeatedly attacked the hedonistic “bread and circuses” policies of the Argentine government that promoted free contraceptives and sterilization, and same-sex “marriage,” saying these undermine respect for life, the family and religious liberty.

He has urged Catholics to persevere in their pro-life mission, even if “they persecute you, calumniate you, set traps for you, take you to court or kill you.” He added: “No child should be deprived of the right to be born, the right to be fed, the right to go to school. No elderly person should be left alone, abandoned.”

Pope Francis has proposed a radical solution to the culture of death, to problems within the Church and the world at large:  We must become saints! Saints, he observes, are the agents of reform in the Church and the world. Not “saints” who piously recite prayers and observe Church teaching while remaining aloof to the world, but the kind who bring the merciful love of Christ into the world.

In Buenos Aires last year, the Cardinal reminded his priests that Jesus bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes. He exhorted them to “Go out and share your testimony, go out and interact with your brothers, go out and share, go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit.”

The process of conversion, Pope Francis explains, begins in a personal encounter with the mercy and tenderness of Jesus Christ in the face of our sins. As a result of “this merciful embrace … we feel a real desire to respond, to change, to correspond; a new morality arises. … Christian morality is … the heartfelt response to a surprising, unforeseeable, ‘unjust’ [i.e., unmerited] mercy … of one who knows me, knows my betrayals and loves me just the same, appreciates me, embraces me, calls me again, hopes in me, and expects from me.”  

This experience and response should propel us out of our comfort zone and into active evangelization—living a life of total service to others, shouldering their crosses, loving them as Christ loves us. This is the way to build up the body of Christ and to transform our culture.

That’s why I am deeply challenged by Pope Francis. Not two days into his papacy, his “¡Adelante!” (“Go forth!”) is ringing in my ears. My comfort zone is no longer cozy. My “crosses” seem pitifully small.

My conscience is nagging me to “go out and share …, go out and interact” and my complacency is weakening under the force of his example. Beware of authentic Catholics like Francis. They may compel you to change your life!

Susan Wills is assistant director for education and outreach, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. Tolearn more about the bishops' pro-life activities, go to www.usccb.org/prolife.