It has been one full year since Pope Francis was elected as Supreme Shepherd of the Church on March 13, 2013, and formally installed on the Feast of St. Joseph, March 19, 2013. From the very beginning, as he appeared at the balcony in St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis has touched the hearts of many people with his message and with his person. In one year he has not changed the structure of the Church in any significant way but he has presented the Church in a manner which has attracted the positive attention of Catholics, non-Catholics and even nonbelievers. He certainly has not changed the teaching of the Church but has presented her message in a manner which has made it more inviting.
There is no significant difference of character between Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. In fact, Pope Francis, on many occasions, has expressed his high esteem and regard for his predecessor and has even encouraged a more public profile for Benedict in the Church. The one quality of character that unites Pope Francis and Pope-emeritus Benedict so closely is a deep humility which is at the service of the Church. It was the extraordinarily courageous and humble resignation of the office of the papacy by Pope-emeritus Benedict last year that paved the road to the papacy of Pope Francis. In fact, both of these great popes will someday be seen in the unity of character and purpose which has now captured the attention of the world in Pope Francis.
Pope Francis has become so popular a figure in his short papacy that a number of unusual recognitions have been made of him. He was named as the Person of the Year by Time magazine. He appeared on the cover of a most unlikely periodical, Rolling Stone magazine, which presented a most positive story about him. Graffiti has appeared around the city of Rome which depicts Pope Francis as "Super Pope." He was presented with an Oscar in the form of a Pope and a Roman secular publication has recently published a weekly magazine entitled My Pope, with stories, pictures and the latest quotes from the Holy Father. Many look to his daily homilies which are published on the web as well as to his quotes on twitter.
Recently, in an interview with a Roman newspaper on many different issues, Pope Francis was asked what he thought of all this recognition especially in being recognized as "Super Pope." Not surprisingly, the Pope answered that he took offense at such characterization as he described himself as a normal person like everyone else. He said, "To depict the Pope as a sort of superman, a sort of star, seems offensive to me. The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps tranquilly and has friends like everyone else, a normal person." Perhaps this sincere and spontaneous response of the Pope is at the core of why he has been so attractive to all people. We all realize that the Pope possesses a special office within the Church that carries with it awesome responsibilities. However, Pope Francis has not separated his humanity from his office. While he realizes that he is different in what he has to carry out as Pope, he carries it out as a human being, like everyone else, making everyone else feel comfortable with being human.
It has been said that a holy person is a person in whose presence another can feel comfortable to be him or herself. There is no need to put on pretension or to pretend to be something other than what one is. In fact, a holy person makes another person appreciate better who he or she is. There is a natural bond of unity between the two persons which is their common human nature made in the image and likeness of God. Certainly, Pope Francis has made people feel comfortable with themselves as human persons, not only for the people who meet him personally, but for all of us who see and hear him from afar.
The lesson of Pope Francis' life is that of the Lord Himself. As we celebrate this Lenten season, we are reminded that God took our humanity to Himself even when we rejected it. Jesus identified with us in everything - our sorrows, our joys, our disappointments, our pains and even death itself. While He was rejected by us, He never rejected us. He, who was without sin, took our sins to Himself and nailed them to the Cross so that we might be free from what enslaves us from being the persons we were created to be.
In another interview which Pope Francis gave to the Jesuit magazine, America, over the summer, he was asked the question, "Who are you?" Obviously, the interviewer wanted to know who he was in terms of his background, office, relationships and all of the other things that define us as persons. The Pope answered, once again, spontaneously and honestly, "I am a sinner." He did not say this to be pious but because he realized that he, like the rest of us, are in need of the redemption and grace which Jesus Christ, the Sinless One, came to give us. Pope Francis realizes that in our frail humanity it is only the tender and merciful love of God which raises us up and brings us joy.
As we continue during this season of Lent to prepare to celebrate the Paschal mystery of Easter, we all do so realizing that our humanity is a gift from God which He took upon Himself. Being "a normal person," in whatever vocation God has called us to, is where we find the joy of life. Pretension excludes us from others as well as from ourselves. In his year as Pope, Francis has given us a great example and inspiration in this regard. Most importantly, he has pointed the attention away from himself and to the Person of Jesus Christ who came into this world to give us this freeing message.
We all join in prayer for our Holy Father on his first anniversary. He has truly shown us that to be a super person and being a normal person are the same thing!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
March 21, 2014