Pope Francis shows us how to be present


The past year saw the introduction of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the whole world. He is known simply as Pope Francis since last March when he was chosen to succeed the retiring Pope Benedict XVI. The impact of this man has been a phenomenon. It’s as if a barge floating along in slow current suddenly became a sleek winged craft and took flight. Everyone is compelled to look and wonder.
Time magazine named him its 2013 Person of the Year.
Why is this man getting this kind of attention? As the pope, the figure representing the center of the Catholic Church, some of it is a natural result of his office. But there is obviously more, especially his manner of speaking, direct, with a personal note, which is a contrast with the more reserved, cautious and “official” impersonal tone we expect from authorities of all kinds.
He also smiles easily, and he touches people, not just with the traditional priestly hand on the head but with robust hugs, with a kiss on the cheek or head, crowding in with a group of young people for a selfie. The man acts at home with ordinary folks. We had a clue to that early in his pontificate when he chose to reside where he shares facilities with other people in the Vatican rather than the splendid isolation of the old papal apartment.
What he says also felt like a fresh wind. His comment, “Who am I to judge?” in answer to a reporter’s question about homosexual priests could be called the quote of the year. In five little words he placed the Church’s teaching about homosexuality and homosexual persons in a balance that official documents could not achieve. No matter how many times and in how many ways the Church has said that homosexual persons are to be respected and loved as children of God, the words always sat behind a veil of negative judgment.
Francis tore that veil, allowing first things to be first: the person. The person, this singular person, must first be accepted and allowed to bring something of God to birth. First the blessing, then see what the blessed life offers for judgment.
So we have an unusually attractive pope. Is there one underlying quality in this man’s appeal that might be a key to his spirit? Even a key so ordinary that anyone could use it? It seems that there is. Call it presence.
We know when someone is fully present to us, giving full attention, attending to us rather than looking over our shoulder for the next encounter. This seems to be the pope’s way of proceeding. He is the opposite of the conventional “holy” person who seems always slightly distant, as if the most important reality is in his head rather than in front of his eyes.
If Pope Francis is offering a lesson in presence by his life, how fitting that is for the person holding the old title Vicar of Christ. In our central act of faith and worship as Catholics we speak of the Eucharist as the Real Presence of Christ. But most often that expression “Real Presence” is little more than pious words. The meaning is so hard to grasp, so full of abstract air that it works more as a conversation stopper rather than starter.
Try thinking of real presence as it’s practiced by the pope. That puts flesh and muscle and a smile into those pious words. It puts the presence of Christ into here and now. It brings the Real Presence of the Eucharist into our homes, our streets, our work and our relationships.
It would make a good New Year’s Resolution. Anyone can do it.
Frank Wessling

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