A bid to 'do good'

Pope Francis washes an inmate's foot at a juvenile detention center in Rome. He's closing the gap between the papacy and the faithful of the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis washes an inmate's foot at a juvenile detention center in Rome. He's closing the gap between the papacy and the faithful of the Catholic Church. (L'Osservatore Romano, Vatican City)

Pope Francis has brought a new face to the papacy. It's as if he's chatting with us. Still, a strange severity seasons a stew of amiability.

Posted: June 16, 2013

Orlando R. Barone

is a freelance writer in Doylestown

As a Catholic schoolboy, when I thought "pope," words that came to mind were thin, chilly, stern, distant, and sin at your own risk. That was Pius XII, the only pope I knew until my teens, when, with no warning, pope began to mean fat, smiling, warm, and, of all things, friendly. That could be none other than John XXIII.

A lot of years and a few pontiffs later comes Francis, a curious blend of my first two popes. The warmth and friendliness are at once apparent as he insists on smiling at everyone, plunging into crowds, laying hands on strangers in distress, washing the feet of tattooed teenagers, giving sermons that come off like a combination of campfire storytelling and stand-up improv.

Still, a strange severity seasons the stew of amiability. His papal garb seems pale, stripped down, and unadorned, mainly because it is. He has replaced the papal throne with what I think is an old folding chair someone found in the basilica basement. His un-red shoes need a shine, and his red carpet was sent to the dry cleaners and hasn't been picked up.

Even those improvised homilies are unadorned. It's as if he's chatting with us, thinking up images on the spot, tossing out exhortations like a soccer coach. How unlike previous papal pronouncements gilded with stilted verbosity, padded with polysyllabic peroration. Dare I say it? He's fun to listen to.

The source of this joyous sternness is no surprise to me, although everything about it is surprising. You see, Pope Francis is a Jesuit, which means he has taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. This may differentiate him from some popes, who were drawn from the ranks of diocesan priests. They take an oath of celibacy and, yes, promise obedience to their bishops and to the pope, but they were not required by vow to remain poor.

I was in a seminary for five years as a member of the Order of St. Augustine and, like the Jesuit Pope Francis, I, too, pronounced the vow of poverty, which meant, literally, that I could call nothing my own. While issues with the other vows hastened my reentry into the world, I found poverty most revealing of what it means to devote oneself to Christ.

In a recent homily directed at attending bishops, Pope Francis offers a peek at what his devotion to poverty does. He claims that pastors who put all their faith in the Lord's grace can lead their flocks "freed from the burdens that hinder a healthy apostolic swiftness." Apostolic swiftness - what a splendid turn of phrase.

It speaks of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who dropped everything to stay with the desolate dying in the clamorous streets of India; Martin Luther King, who left his comfortable pulpit to march in the beleaguered streets of America; Francis of Assisi, this pope's namesake, who woke up one day and sent his followers to the streets of every continent to preach love and joy.

Poverty disencumbers, and Pope Francis seems determined not to be encumbered by anything except the call to, as he puts it, "do good."

Long ago, I was on a business trip in Manhattan, and, feeling hunger after a long day, I left my hotel and strolled to a McDonald's nearby. The customer in front of me was an old homeless woman. I watched her order a small coffee, all she could afford, and then grab up as many containers of cream and sugar as she could get away with. I discerned her strategy: to use her meager means to acquire as much nutrition as possible.

The next week, I visited my mother and told her the sad tale of the starving old woman; I emphasized how distressing it was for me to witness her desperation.

"Did you buy her a hamburger?" Mom asked.

I forget what I answered, but I'll never forget the realization that my poverty, not that old woman's, was the truth within the little story. I completely lacked the apostolic swiftness my mother so deftly demonstrated.

Here is a pope whose very smile challenges our sluggishness in the face of obvious need, whose very warmth melts the cold distance we keep from our anguished neighbor, whose very poverty enriches the lives of believers with its dynamic portrait of love on the move.

And not only believers. The other day, Pope Francis was using his patented homiletic style to celebrate St. Rita, the patron of the impossible.

The sermon discussed redemption. "God has redeemed all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!" Then, it veers off; the pope takes on the voice of an unbeliever questioning a priest. " 'Father, even the atheists?' 'Even the atheists. Everyone!' We must meet one another doing good." Doing good creates a "culture of encounter." "'But, Father, I'm an atheist.' 'Do good; we'll meet there, OK?' "

We'll all meet there, where good is done. Dr. King meets Mother Teresa, and both meet Francis of Assisi, and all smile at the wondering atheist standing by the oasis where good is done. Do good, and we'll all meet there.

An astounding message of unrestricted love from this pope, vowed to poverty, inflamed with apostolic swiftness, stripped of all impediments to doing good, firm in the conviction that good is a place where we all will meet. Perhaps even I, in all my sluggish self-absorption, will make it there. With luck, I might even get the chance to buy a hamburger for a hungry old woman to enjoy along with her cup of coffee.

E-mail Orlando R. Barone at orby114@aol.com.

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