Popes of My Youth & The Universal Call to Holiness

Or: The one where Luke turns up a month late to the pope party.

Pope Francis not giving his official approval to this blog.

With the first month of his papacy behind us, the dust is now beginning to settle after the election of Pope Francis. But beyond his baby kissing and crowd pleasing, the most apparent feature of Pope Francis to me is his unique humility and charity. Sure, his preference for the cardinals’ minibus, refusal to live in the papal apartments and personal payment of an outstanding hotel bill have been widely reported – but a look deeper reveals much more.

A few quick examples will suffice. At his first Urbi et Orbi blessing directly following his election, before the blessing-proper Pope Francis asked onlookers to pray for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and to pray for himself – not just at some point in the future prayer, but there and then as he bowed before the St Peter’s Square crowds! There is also the meeting of the new pope and his predecessor at Castel Gandolfo, where Benedict XVI offered Francis the place of primacy in the chapel – to which he replied “we are brothers” and invited the former pope to join him in his pew. Finally, in his Missa pro Ecclesia homily Pope Francis implored the faithful to profess Christ in all things, interestingly stating: “If we do not profess Christ… [w]e may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord”.

Each of these examples demonstrates a man who puts Christ and His example at the centre of his life – and thus others before himself. I recall what a friend once said to me: Christians are called to JOY – Jesus first, Others next, and Yourself last. This “JOY” is the visible motif of Francis’ papacy thus far.

For me however, this motif of self-giving caritas (love/charity) is an immense challenge. I recall the life of Blessed Frederic Ozanam, who in is youth was an avid apologist for the Catholic Church at his university in poverty-stricken Paris. During a particularly heated debate about the Church’s gift to civilisation, Bl Fredric was challenged by his adversary: beyond talking, what was he doing to help the poor as he claims the Church does? What was he doing to demonstrate these teachings of his Church? Bl. Fredric and his friends hence founded the Conference of Charity, now known as the St Vincent de Paul Society.

I can’t help but take this challenge personally because I all too often relate to Bl. Fredric’s position. Since the main events of my continual conversion two years ago, I have been doing battle with the temptation to let my faith be an intellectual, or purely personal, interest (as it almost entirely was for much of my life). By God’s grace I have come a long way since then, but He constantly challenges me further and further to live my faith, to empty myself and pour myself out in love as He did (and does). This sounds lofty, it sounds difficult, but I was made out of love for love, so I ought to do something about it. Pope Francis’ witness reminds me that salvation does not come from reading, and knowledge in theology will count for nothing at the Last Judgement if I have not love. Our Lord’s words on this topic terrify me:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46 – Full parable is here)

Now Pope Francis’ motif of charity is not some kind of recent revolution for the papacy, a bolt from the blue if you will. There will be efforts to create a dichotomy out of Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, but anyone who sees a conflict does not really understand Benedict beyond his reserved demeanour. Since reading his 1968 book Introduction to Christianity, it comes as no surprise that his first encyclical was Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), as Introduction screamed these words from pages 1 to 359.

This is precisely the point: all three popes of my living memory have preached the same thesis – Christianity is a call to holiness. This thesis is underscored in slightly differing ways by these three great men, so as to reveal the full depth and breadth of this call. Bl. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis are each like talented sculptors – not chiselling at the same angle to create a banal bare face of rock, but chipping away at varied directions for the same purpose: to create a magnificent work of art. It is only when we look through the hermeneutic of continuity that we see the profound harmony of their teaching. It is only in this way that the call to holiness can burst out in all its beauty.



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