Category Archives: Pope Francis

Figuring out Pope Francis: Three Points to Keep in Mind

Conservatives are disappointed and even angered that he did not speak more openly against abortion and homosexual marriage. Liberals are flummoxed and upset that he would be so “political” as to meet with Kim Davis. Others are just scratching their heads, trying to figure out what is going on: “Is this Pope liberal or conservative?”

I propose that trying to shove the Pope into either category is the wrong approach. The Pope is not a politician, but rather a shepherd of souls with a very pastoral heart who wants nothing more than to bring people to experience God’s love and mercy as he himself has experienced it. Just as Christ ate with both Pharisees and tax collectors, sinners and righteous, so the current Bishop of Rome is striving to reach out to everyone to bring them into the fold.

It’s very important that we use the right paradigm for understanding Pope Francis and analyzing his recent actions in the US. To this end, I would like to offer three points that will help in understanding where he is coming from.

1. He is following Christ’s example of gentleness.

Although there are moments in the Gospels when Christ’s temper flares and he yells at Pharisees or whips merchants out of the Temple, this only happens when the circumstances require such action. His usual mode of dealing with sinners is one of gentleness and compassion. One need to think only of how he dealt with the adulteress and of how he freely associated with tax-collectors and other sinners. He did not prematurely confront them about their sins, but rather opened their hearts by showing them his unconditional love.

Christ’s usual modus operandi with sinners can help us understand Pope Francis’ approach to his pastoral visit to the US. He chose not to come in “cleansing-the-Temple mode” but rather in “eating-with-tax-collectors mode.” If he avoided speaking directly about abortion and homosexual marriage before Congress, I think that it was only to keep ears open for further dialogue. The Pope is not stupid: he knew that speaking on certain hot-button issues would cause many people to shut down automatically. As exciting as it would have been to watch him decry the sins of the American people in front of a joint session of Congress, he simply judged that it was not the time to do so. Instead, he chose to use the unprecedented opportunity to focus on issues that are common to all.

In focusing on the common ground topics such as immigration and climate change, the Pope kept the dialogue going with the secular world, and in doing so he followed the example of Christ with the Samaritan woman at the well. Initially, the Samaritan woman was not ready to dialogue with Christ, so he did not go for the tough issues in her life right away. Rather, he began the conversation by referring to what had brought them together in the first place: the well and its water. He asked her for a drink and gradually drew her into a conversation by appealing first to her desire for water but then to her deeper desire for God. Only when the moment was right did he directly address the sins of her promiscuous lifestyle.

2. He is engaging in pre-evangelization.

The New Evangelization is taking place within the context of the most secular society to exist in the West since the Edict of Milan. We are faced with quasi-pagan world that is spiritually ignorant and morally confused. Our world is so aggressively secular and poorly catechized that we are faced with a situation similar to that of the early Christians in pagan Rome. Consequently, before we can even begin to evangelize, we have to pre-evangelize. This means that even before we begin teaching the Gospel, we have to “remove new barriers by deconstructing false notions”, as a friend of mine wrote.

People get frustrated with Pope Francis because they interpret his pre-evangelization as non-evangelization, but such an interpretation is unfair to the Pontiff who is simply trying to prime the world for a renewal of Christianity. The Pope sees that if we are to have any chance at getting the Western world back to the Gospel, we have to dedicate time and energy to de-constructing false notions about the Church. He is de-constructing false notions by emphasizing the positive aspects of our faith and appealing to what we hold in common with the secular world.

In other words, he has chosen an indirect approach rather than full-on frontal assault. Many people are so rationally confused and intellectually immature that they are incapable of thoughtfully listening to a negative formulation of Church teaching such as “Abortion is murder,” or “Homosexual activity is intrinsically evil.” For that reason, the Pope is choosing to present the same truth with a more positive formulations: he preaches against abortion by calling for a more loving, non-consumeristic approach to all of creation (the unborn included), and he preaches against homosexual unions by praising the beauty of traditional family life.

3. He is not neglecting his flock. 

Recently, I was speaking with a good friend, who is an exemplary Catholic, about the difficulties of understanding Pope Francis. We both agreed that the Pope’s lack of clarity on certain issues is probably a side-effect of his more subtle mode of engaging the secular world. My friend acknowledged that being direct and blunt could compromise his attempt to come in through the back door, but he also exclaimed, “I wish that he would at least give the rest of us a nudge and a wink!”

I agree with my friend that this is the big challenge that the Pope is facing: keeping the dialogue going with the secular world while at the same time encouraging and guiding those who have remained faithful. But I suggest that if one looks closely enough at what he says and does, one will see that he is indeed giving us nudges and winks. For example, in front of the President on the White House lawn he clearly cited  the US bishops’ call for the defense of religious liberty (which can be found in a letter written in response to the HHS mandate) . Then, later in the day, he visited the Little Sisters of the Poor to encourage them in their fight to live their faith freely. On top of that, he visited with Kim Davis in the nunciature, and later he spoke up on the need for the freedom of conscientious objection on the flight back to Rome.

Conclusion

Pope Francis’ style does not fit many of our pre-conceived notions of the papacy, so it is disconcerting. While the Pope is not perfect and is susceptible to legitimate critique, I think that it is important for us to remember that at the end of the day the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church with and in spite of any shortcomings that he may have. It is also important to remember that while he must protect and guide the sheep within the fold, he is also called to bring back those who are outside it. Some may not like the way that he does it, but at the end of the day, his method is his choice. He is the Supreme Pontiff – not us.

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“God is in the City”: the Pope’s Message in New York

The doors of St. Patrick's Cathedral right after the Pope's departure. [Photo credit: Fr. Jason Smith, LC]
The doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral right after the Pope’s departure. [Photo credit: Fr. Jason Smith, LC]

The visit of a Roman Pontiff to the cultural capital of the modern world is no small affair. For both days of his time in New York, the city’s colossal network of organizational machinery shifted to accommodate his schedule, and everyone from the Bronx to Staten Island was affected in one way or another. Every gun-carrying government agency was out in full-force to provide security. Wherever the Pope went, helicopters flew overhead and police snipers manned the roofs along his route. Secret servicemen surrounded every papal location and SWAT teams were on full alert. Bomb-detecting canines sniffed every nook and cranny.

Streets were closed, bus routes were changed, and traffic was re-routed, but from what I can tell, people hardly complained (and for New Yorkers, that’s saying a lot!).  The city was not only honored but thrilled to host His Holiness, and the atmosphere was charged with expectation and excitement.

The Pope’s Fatherly Presence

Pope Francis brought his paternal love to a city in desperate need of it. New York is a wonderful place, but it is also a city in need of deep spiritual healing.  Like any city, it is full of loneliness and isolation. Although it is full of amazing success stories, it is also full of human failure, both spiritual and material. It is a place that can easily lead people to equate self-worth with dollar signs and personal appearance, with disastrous effects. It is a city that is still recovering from the horrendous 9/11 attacks, the wounds of which will take generations to fully heal.

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Pope Francis walking down the center aisle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. [Photo credit: Fr. Jason Smith, LC]

Pope Francis’ fatherly presence touched the hearts of the people of this metropolis, and I saw this happening both at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Madison Square Garden. The most powerful moment for me was during his homily at the Garden when he said the following words and received a long, loud ovation:

“Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that he is part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope. A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others, for the life of our city…A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as he continues to walk the streets of our city. Because God is in the city. [Emphasis added.]

God is Not Afraid of Smog

New Yorkers responded so enthusiastically to this simple message because they desperately wanted and needed to hear it. They needed to be reminded that God, their Father, is with them. New York, like any other city, is a place full of “smog,” both literal and metaphorical, and living such a place can lead to negative view of life, the world, and one’s self.

The arena of Madison Square Garden shortly before the papal mass. [Photo credit: Fr. Jason Smith, LC]
The arena of Madison Square Garden shortly before the papal mass. [Photo credit: Fr. Jason Smith, LC]

The Pope’s message of hope reminded New Yorkers that they are deeply loved, that even though they may be cynical about the world and themselves, God is not cynical about them. God loves them whether they are rich or poor, good-looking or not. Pope Francis reminded them with his warm smile and kind words that God loves them so much that He is not afraid to live in the midst of their “smog” in order to be with them. He reminded them that this city, despite all contrary appearances, is not godless at all, but that God is indeed here in their midst.

A Message for All of Us

This message is equally relevant for New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike. Whether we like it or not, we all inhabit the virtual “city” that the world has become, and we are all inundated by its spiritual smog, but this does not make us any less loved by our heavenly Father. He knows our struggle.

A view of St. Patrick's Cathedral. [Photo credit: Fr. Jason Smith, LC]
A view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. [Photo credit: Fr. Jason Smith, LC]

On a personal level,  I found great hope and encouragement in the Pope’s message. The Pope motivated and re-energized me to keep going strong as I begin my new ministry in my new home: New York City. I look forward to following his example as a priest by being a spiritual father dedicated to reminding New Yorkers that Jesus is truly in their midst.


A special thanks to my good friend, Fr. Jason Smith for his photography. For more of his inspirational and creative photos, be sure to follow him on Instagram!

Fr. Jason and I: it was t

Pope Francis at the White House Calls for Defense of Religious Freedom

It was good to see Pope Francis at the White House earlier this morning addressing our nation in English and ending his speech with a hearty “God bless America!”

America is indeed blessed to have the Pontiff with us in these days, and it is important that we pay close attention to what he has to say in order to take advantage of the wisdom that he has to offer us. His speech on the White House lawn did not contain any surprises – he spoke about immigration and climate change, as expected – but I would like to highlight what he had to say about religious freedom:

[Religious] freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions. And, as my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it. [Emphasis added.]

We should not skip over the significance of these lines, especially since it is not hard to read between them. The most recent call to the defense of religious liberty made by the USCCB (US Conference of Catholic Bishops) was shortly after the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate that employers provide insurance that covers contraception and abortifacients. The Pope’s reference to the bishops’ statement is, in my opinion, a subtle but clear admonition for the President and all of those behind the HHS mandate’s infringement on religious freedom.

Currently, the Little Sisters of the Poor are fighting against the HHS mandate to freely live according to their faith in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell. The Pope’s citation of the American bishops’ letter speaking out against the same mandate (which has pressured the Little Sisters and others to act contrary to the Catholic faith) was his diplomatic way of reminding the President and the American people that such laws are unacceptable. We have to “defend [religious] freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it” – even from our own government.

It is very significant that the Pope referenced the American bishops’  defense of religious liberty, and I think that the Pope, speaking as a pastor and international spiritual leader, will have more to say to us Americans that may not be comfortable for everyone to hear. It will be interesting to see what he was to say at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia this weekend, especially in light of the biggest attack on the family since Roe v. Wade: the Obergefell decision.

Pope Francis in America

I just finished watching on TV the Pope’s arrival at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, and I have to say that I am very excited about the week to come! All of the seminarians and faculty of St. Joseph’s Seminary will be attending vespers with Pope Francis at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Thursday evening and mass with him at Madison Square Garden on Friday evening.

Having been blessed to watch his pontificate from the very beginning in Rome, I am all the more grateful to be able to see him here on the other side of the Atlantic. This is his first visit to the USA, and I think that it will be a very important one for the entire nation, and also for him.

His visit is important for us, because we desperately need to hear his message of mercy and hope. But it’s also important because it’s not always easy for us Americans to understand where he is coming from on certain issues, such as capitalism and immigration. It will be helpful to listen to his perspective in our own language (4 of his 18 speeches will be in English) and to see him in our own context.

I do think that it will be also very helpful for him to see first-hand the reality of America and the American Church. As a worldwide leader, one of his biggest challenges is communicating in a way that makes sense to everyone, so it is very good that he has this opportunity spend almost an entire week with this important part of the universal Church.

I look forward to sharing with you a front-line perspective of the Pope’s visit to New York City on Thursday and Friday, so stay tuned!


For the Pope’s full schedule in America, click here.

Pope Francis’ New Encyclical: He Writes about Global Warming, and That’s Okay

pope francis acquisiton picture cropped-1The Pope’s hot-off-the-press encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You), in full continuity with his unconventional personal style, is exciting for some, but disconcerting for others.  Even before it was published, many were denouncing the Pope’s “climate encyclical” as being beyond the papal purview.

Former Senator Rick Santorum – a Catholic and presidential candidate – expressed his concern this way: “The Church has gotten it wrong a few times on science. I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.” (quote from npr.org)

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma put it even more bluntly: “The Pope ought to stay with his job, and we’ll stay with ours. I am not going to talk about the Pope. Let him run his shop, and we’ll run ours.” (quote from npr.org)

I have just finished reading the encyclical cover-to-cover, so I can say first-hand that it is an inspiring document. My sincere hope is that those who disagree with the Pope’s position on climate change will not let that prevent them from reading his letter with an open heart and mind. The encyclical is a marvelous collection of centuries of theological and moral wisdom: it would be a true shame for anyone to deprive themselves what it has to offer because of a negative disposition.

1. The encyclical speaks about much more than global warming.

The entire document is actually a theologically and philosophically based critique of postmodern culture offered from the perspective of the environmental crisis. While he does specifically mention global warming as one of several worrying environmental problems, the overriding message of the encyclical is a call for Christians and non-Christians alike to make fundamental changes to their worldview. It is a call to conversion.

St. Francis of Assisi, whose love for nature is cited in the encyclical.
St. Francis of Assisi, whose love for nature is cited in the encyclical.

Some people may be perplexed that the Pope would dedicate an entire encyclical to the environment instead of addressing other more pressing moral concerns. In my opinion, the Pope’s choice of topic shows impressive savvy. He knows that many  people shut down and clam up when the Church teaches about things like homosexuality, contraception, or abortion. So, instead of going right for those issues, he chose to begin with a theme that is near and dear to the hearts of many: the state of the environment.

A recurring theme is his appeal to re-establish a proper relationship with all creation, especially with our fellow human beings. If we are to resolve the ecological crisis, we have to do more than treat the symptoms: we have resolve the underlying illness which is the consumeristic, materialistic, self-centered, and wasteful attitude that pervades postmodern society. The same selfish attitude that leads people to abort unborn babies leads them to destroy the environment for financial profit. In paragraph 120, he specifically points out that true concern for the environment cannot coexist with the depreciation of human life.

Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? 

2. The Pope is not invading the realm of science.

In response to Rick Santorum’s worry about the Church “getting it wrong on science” again, I would say that the Pope is not claiming to pronounce scientific truth, nor is he telling scientists how to do their job. Rather, he is simply applying the principles of Catholic social doctrine to current situation of the world. He has informed his understanding of the world’s situation with scientific research, and he has just as much a right to do that as any other person. Just because he is a spiritual leader does not preclude him from enriching his spiritual teaching by looking to the scientific world. And just because the Church has “gotten it wrong” on scientific issues before does not mean that she should be paralyzed by the fear of doing it again.

Pope Francis' position on the environment is consistent with Pope Emeritus Benedict's.
Pope Francis’ position on the environment is consistent with Pope Benedict’s.

There is certainly debate on global warming, but those who do not have the possibility of studying the matter scientifically must rely on those who do. If scientists are split on the issue, the non-scientist must rely on the overall consensus. This is what Pope Francis has done in regards to global warming:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming climatic system…It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations of the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases…released mainly as a result of human activity. (Par. 23)

Even as he accepts this consensus, he is respectful of the ongoing debate and withholds from forcing others to accept it. He acknowledges the fact that “different approaches and lines of thought have emerged regarding this situation and its possible solutions,” and he goes on to state that “on many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.” (cfr. paragraphs 60 and 61)

3. The Pope is allowed to make informed prudential judgments and direct is teaching accordingly.

In response to Senator Inhofe’s objection that “the Pope ought to stay with his job”, I would suggest that he has a mistaken view of the Pope’s job. As leader of the Roman Catholic Church, it is the Pontiff’s responsibility to instruct on the principles of Catholic doctrine and their application to particular circumstances. Such teaching requires prudential judgment on his part, something to which he is completely entitled as the spiritual leader of more than a billion people.

St. John Paul II is frequently cited in the encyclical. (CNS photo/Grzegorz Galazka)
St. John Paul II’s teaching on conservation is frequently cited in the encyclical. (CNS photo/Grzegorz Galazka)

In this encyclical, he is applying Catholic social doctrine to the current environmental crisis. He has chosen to inform his understanding of this crisis with the scientific consensus regarding global warming, and he has every right to make such a prudential judgment.

Additionally, Sen. Inhofe should remember that Pope Francis is not American, so the global warming issue is not as heavily politicized for him as it is for Americans. He cannot be faulted for talking about an issue of common concern to the whole world that happens to have political implications in the US.

Conclusion

Laudato Si’ is a beautiful work that goes far beyond the polarizing topic of global warming, so, regardless of one’s stance on the issue, the encyclical is a treasury of theological and philosophical wisdom. It not only offers the world valuable guidelines for solving the ecological crisis, but it also offers incredibly enriching advice for each of us to live more peaceful and happy lives. It is a call for us to slow down, re-establish the proper relationship with the world, and open ourselves to God’s love.

Ultimately, the environment deserves our care because it is a gift from God and a manifestation of his love.

The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God. (Par. 84)

Instead of wasting energy on polemics, let’s focus on the wisdom that the Pope offers, and work together to heal the selfish postmodern disorders that are not only tearing people apart but also the very world that they inhabit.