It seems like Pope Francis is everywhere in the media these days. Not only is he Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year”, he was named “Person of the Year” as well by the London Times, and even “The Advocate.” Just today, I noticed today that Esquire Magazine has name him the Best-Dressed Man of 2013! For a man who less than a year ago was a retired Archbishop in South America, this is quite a switch.
Over on Facebook, a friend noticed wryly that the media was now focused on Pope Francis’ Urbi et Orbi (“to the city and to the world”)message of world peace, as if this were a dramatic new statement launching the Church into hitherto unknown directions seeking peace and justice around the world. Obviously, all prior popes, especially those of the past century or so, have focused on the same themes; there is nothing new in that.
But there IS something new going on, and I think we miss it at our peril: what’s new is not what the Pope is saying, but that people are hearing what he’s saying. Rightly or wrongly, justifiably or not, many of our contemporaries had tuned out the messages and words of previous popes; now they’re inclined to tune back in. It’s not that the message has changed one whit. But the messenger has, and the way the messenger crafts his message has. The classic words of the Second Vatican Council, echoing Pope St. John XXIII, told us that the Church
has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which people ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics (Gaudium et spes, #4).
It seems to me that the key to Pope Francis lies in that paragraph. As a Church, we’ve been blessed with popes who could, since the Council, focus on certain “signs of the times” and their interpretation. But that’s only the first part of what we need to do if we’re going to be proper evangelizers. Many teachers are good at giving students the facts of things, but that doesn’t guarantee that simply knowing those facts will lead to life-changing wisdom. We have to take the next steps in addition to a “just the facts, ma’am” approach. So, in addition to reading the signs of the times in light of the Gospel, here’s the rest:
- We have to find “language intelligible to each generation,” and I would further interpret this to mean “language intelligible to each generation and culture”; the fact is, all people should be able to understand and comprehend what’s being said.
- The point of this understanding is to find what the Church proposes in response to the basic questions of life and the meaning of life. If this connection is not made, then we are failing at the task! But there’s still more.
- In order to make this connection for folks, we need to recognize and understand the world, and what it proposes to people. But in addition, we need to understand what people in the world are longing for, and the way the world works. I have frequently met deacons who, somewhat proudly, proclaim that they no longer have TVs in their homes, that they don’t watch the news or other secular programming, or that they only watch religious programming. I submit that this is a huge misjudgment, especially for ministers of the Gospel in today’s world.
This is where Pope Francis is proving himself to be a master catechist an evangelist. He clearly understands the the scriptures (beautifully so, I might add) and official church teachings. However, what he is bringing to the task is a profound understanding of the rest of the mission: his words, his demeanor, his life style choices, his actions, all point to a messenger that is committed to the content and the context of the mission. This is not in the least a criticism of previous popes. No person can do everything. However, those who assert that the pope’s change of style is unimportant because “the message” remains the same are missing the whole point. The message is never just about the content the message; the style and context of the message is equally important.
We call this evangelization. If people who previously not “heard” the message are now able to “hear” it, God bless them, and God bless the messenger!