Living the Truth in Love: Pope Francis – Quite the Monk!

In late May, Pope Francis gave an interview to the journalist Juan Barretta of the Argentine newspaper, La Voz del Pueblo (The Voice of the People).  The interview was very similar to others which the Pope has given in which he shares his personal observations on his life, his ministry and the Church.  One of the remarks of the Pope, which I found most fascinating, were his words, "I would be no good as a monk.”  These words were in the context of his love for people as well as his choice to live in the more public atmosphere of the Casa Santa Martha.  I found the words even more fascinating because as one reads the interview, the similarities between the life of Pope Francis and that of a monk are most striking.  He and Pope Benedict XVI are both cut from the same fabric and are living truly contemplative lives not far from each other.


The first aspect of Pope Francis' life which resembles that of a contemplative in a monastery is the limitation of his movement.  While the Pope lives a very public life and is with people so much of the time, he basically lives at the Vatican and cannot travel outside of it without much accommodation.  Pope Francis himself has stated how much he would like to wander the streets of Rome by himself just to get a pizza in a small trattoria but this simply is out of the question for him.  The Pope's monastery is the Vatican and it is from here that he basically carries out his ministry to the world.


Another aspect of the life of Pope Francis which resembles that of a monk is his daily schedule.  Pope Francis indicates that he goes to bed at 9:00 PM and rises at 4:00 AM.  This is very similar to the schedule of a monk who goes to bed at about the same time and arises very early to participate in the Office of Readings in an intense matter.  The Pope's very early hours of the day are absorbed in prayer and contemplation in preparation for his daily Mass at the Casa Santa Martha.  This prayer is absolutely necessary to ground his ministry as well as his interaction with so many people during the course of the day.  Without it, he would not find his dealings with people to be the revelation of God's presence that they are.  Similar to a monk, the Pope admits that he takes a daily nap from forty minutes to an hour in the afternoon.  Even in a monastery, a monk is given some time for himself for rest or recreation of a personal nature.  This is a very important aspect of life.


I was quite surprised to learn from the interview that the Pope, similar to a monk, does not watch any TV. This is due to a promise he made to Mary in 1990 on the occasion of the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.  Everyone knows that the Pope is very interested in soccer but does not watch any of the games since the information from the games are brought to him by the Swiss guards. Even in a monastery, there are leaks of information from the outside from visitors and others who bring interesting news to the monks!


 I was also fascinated to learn that the Pope only reads one newspaper, the Italian daily La Repubblica, which he described as meant for the middle class.  Considering the Pope's insertion into the midst of world events, his evaluation of them obviously does not come from the media.  He must not read his own newspaper interviews, such as the one from which these observations came, and that accounts for why he never remarks more about them even when his words are misunderstood.  The Pope certainly gives a good example that what he says and how he reacts to events comes from his heart, from a life of communion with God in prayer and through the people he meets.  His attitude is that of a monk and not that of a celebrity.


Another similar aspect of the life of Pope Francis to that of a monk is that he does not take a day off and does not take any time for vacation.  This is very similar to the lives of all the other popes but a bit different for Pope Francis who does not even go to Castel Gondolfo for the summer to get a change of scenery.  A monk lives in the same monastery all during the year and Pope Francis follows a similar pattern in his life.  Similar to a monk, Pope Francis finds great joy in meeting God where he is.


We are looking forward to the encyclical of Pope Francis on nature and the ecology which has received much public attention.  In fact, it has been announced by the Vatican that the encyclical will be public on June 18, right before this addition of the Florida Catholic.  The Pope's interest in nature and care for it is very much rooted in the spirituality of St. Francis. However, living close to nature and care for it is the very fabric of a monastic life.  Monks are very attuned to the movement of the seasons and their lives are engaged in care for the land and for their surroundings.  They generally take care of the needs of the monastery and its grounds by themselves and many times provide produce such as jams, bread and cloth to the wider community to support themselves.   Monks, similar to Pope Francis, are very sensitive to the lack of care for God's creation which many times pervades our present world.  A good example of this is from a monastery in Norcia, Italy, about 70 miles northeast of Rome which operates a craft brewery and where the monks spend several hours a day chanting the Mass and Divine Office.  One of its members recently stated, "There's a lot of pollution in our world, and so the pure oxygen of Gregorian chant is like a breath of fresh air."


Obviously, one of the most striking aspects of the life of Pope Francis is his love for people and his getting involved with them in a personal way.  However, his interaction with people is not a need for his personal identity and affirmation.  In his dealing with people, like a monk, he steps away from himself in order that the presence of Jesus Christ might be manifest to them and that the Pope might experience the manifestation of Jesus Christ through the people. Even though the Pope's interaction is so engaging, it is very much the fruit of a monastic and contemplative attitude.  People do not come to the Pope, as fans to a celebrity, to meet him but to meet Jesus Christ.  Every Pope has to be a monk if they are to effectively carry out their ministry.


Pope Francis gives us a great example in his ministry.  He also gives us a great example of the need for the contemplative aspect of life no matter what our vocation or occupation may be.  We need, perhaps not as much as the Pope, to live monastic qualities if we truly are to know the joy of the Lord in our lives.

Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
June 19, 2015