ENCOUNTERING POPE FRANCIS


It has been four years since Pope Francis has steered the rudder of the boat of Peter and has worn the “fisherman’s ring”. Since that fateful day of March 13, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has electrified the world with his “Francis Effect” or “Francis Fever” phenomena. While popular media and ecclesiastical guessing games had escaped his unheard of name as the possible next pope, Pope Francis has astonishingly captured the imagination of many, courtesy of his charisma and seeming unconventionality as a global leader. To some, however, the Francis persona and style are construed as suspect. Hence, hostile. Yet as a whole, it is without a doubt that for four years now and counting, Pope Francis has made the world keeping a gaze on him and the Catholic Church in general.

In a span of four years, “Encounter” has been one of the recurring themes in the pronouncements of Pope Francis (his favorite, methinks). This could be seen in his gestures and messages. He would breakdown protocols and formalities in order to be close to people. Few hours after his election, instead of taking a Vatican-chauffeured limousine, Francis happily hopped a minibus together with the cardinal-electors. And on his first day as a Pope, he personally collected his suitcase, paid his hotel bill and thanked the hotel staff. Moreover, in his three successive messages on the celebration of World Communications Day, Pope Francis has consistently been talking about “encounters” – “Communications at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter” (2014), “Communicating the Family: A Privileged Place of Encounter with the Gift of Love (2015) and “Communication and Mercy: A Fruitful Encounter” (2016).

On a personal note, Right and Beauty contemplates on the four encounters that in a way depict the Pope’s effect to the whole world. These may be vignettes to the whole picture of his papacy. These four encounters are varied: via live video coverage, by way of reading a papal document, through the instrumentality of a person close to him and by a personal encounter itself.

From the Balcony: While still “unbelieving” as we watched the televised election of the new pope, Pope Francis’ first speech somewhat encapsulated who he is as a person and what he will do as a shepherd. Two things are very telling here. One, he commenced his speech with “Good evening” and finished off with “Good night and sleep well.” This was atypical as it was simple. This greeting practically met all people who were listening, either those who were in the St. Peter Square or to those who were just glued to their television sets, at each one’s level. It was down-to-earth and profoundly fatherly at the same time. And two, he asked for a favour and bowed his head. “I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me.” This sincerest gesture, coming from a world leader at that, spoke volumes. Further, Pope Francis also broke a tradition when at the announcement “Habemus Papam!” he opted not to rise to the platform, instead remained at the same level with the rest of the cardinals beside him. Not to mention, he has chosen to wear the simple white cassock in preference to the majestic purple vestment.

From the Manuscript: Among the many firsts- the first Jesuit, the first from Latin America, the first to assume the name Francis, Pope Francis is also the first Pope to have issued a full-blown document about environment. The encyclical letter entitled “Laudato Si” is groundbreaking. According to the Jesuit-theologian, James Martin, “the greatest contribution of “Laudato Si” to the environmental dialogue is its systematic overview of the crisis from a religious point of view. Until now, the environmental dialogue has been framed mainly with political, scientific and economic language.” Hence, contemporary history can have Francis as the “greener” pope with this remarkable concern for the earth and the earth’s goods. This trailblazing papal advocacy underscores too an encounter with everyone to engage in a dialogue vis a vis an encounter with our “common home”.

From a Close Collaborator: Two years ago, I was able to attend a gathering of moral theologians from around the globe in Bangalore, India. The conference was dubbed as “Doing Catholic Theological Ethics in a Cross-Cultural and Interreligious Asian Context”. One of the plenary speakers was Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, a top prelate and close collaborator of Pope Francis. In his talk, Cardinal Tagle disclosed that he had asked the Pope to remove him from two recently appointed posts (as head of Caritas International and Catholic Biblical Federation). But Pope Francis dissuaded him. He was told that the future of the Church is in Asia. While the audience applauded to the said disclosure, Tagle cautioned that “the papal expectation from the Asian Churches is not an honor but a matter of great responsibility… It is a challenge, a prophecy or a great calling, we do not know. But it is surely a matter of great responsibility, a great mission.” Certainly, this remark by the Pope is no-nonsense. Again, it is breaking new horizons in terms of encounter. From the West, the pendulum of Church life is now swinging consistently to the other side of the globe. Tagle assumed that “our mission seriously and seek ways how we can contribute to the worldwide church, in terms of reflection, research and best practices.”

From Yolanda: It was an exceptional blessing for me that I got to see Pope Francis in person, albeit among a crowd, in Tacloban. The experience was profound, to say the least. It was unarguably a visitation of God more than a Pope’s visit (traditionally, a bishop’s visit is also known in Latin as “visitatio Dei”). Then and there, before a soaked congregation and amidst unpleasant weather condition, the Holy Father visibly embodied his role as the Vicar of Christ in the world, his representative. He was like Christ when he still flew to Tacloban despite warning of an unsafe flight. Pope Francis was willing to risk his life if only to be with his children who had been suffering deeply due to damages in life and property caused by the strongest typhoon ever in the world and in history. He was like Christ when he opted to celebrate the Holy Mass outside the comfort of a covered area. Rather, he joined the congregation under stormy skies and turbulent wind. What is more, he also wore the same garb that the people were wearing then – raincoat! Then in his homily, instead of a prepared one, he chose to be spontaneous and spoke from the heart. His heart connected thoroughly to the hearts of his children there in Tacloban. “I’d like to tell you something close to my heart. When I saw from Rome that catastrophe… I decided to come here. I am here to be with you – a little bit late, but I’m here.”

Four years is too little yet in terms of the task of encounter. But the Holy Father has already set the tone and the tune towards meaningful encounters. The encounter could indeed happen just anytime and in many ways, like the above-mentioned – through media, through reading, through another person and through a personal experience. And, in a generation where everybody is busy in a rustle-bustle world, an encounter is an oasis. In a world where indifferentism is prevailing, an encounter can be a healing balm to that heart insecure. In a culture of being self-referential, an encounter can be a respite to a weary soul. We can certainly add some more to this litany where encounter is most needed. For Pope Francis though, turning every moment as an encounter is a chance to fill that human need “to love and be loved”, a chance and a need to encounter God.

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