One of Pope Francis’ favorite novels is “The Betrothed” by Alessandro Manzoni. It is about two lovers whose longing to marry is thwarted by a cowardly and morally mediocre priest and a grasping nobleman. A good simple friar shelters the suffering couple. Then a plague hits the country, reminding everyone of their mortality and vulnerability, and also bringing about a moral reckoning.
As the doctors serve in hospitals for the body, the good people in the church serve in hospitals for the soul. One cardinal remonstrates the cowardly priest. “You should have loved, my son; loved and prayed. Then you would have seen that the forces of iniquity have power to threaten and to wound, but no power to command.” In the end there are heart-wrenching scenes of confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and marriage.
I mention Francis’ favorite novel, which he’s read four times, because we in the media are about to over-politicize his visit to America. We’re comfortable talking about our ideological disputes, so we'll closely follow and cover whatever hints he drops on abortion, gay marriage, global warming and divorce.
But this visit is also a spiritual and cultural event. Millions of Americans will display their faith in public. Francis will offer doctrinal instruction for Catholics. But the great gift is the man himself – his manner, the way he carries himself. Specifically, Francis offers a model on two great questions: How do you deeply listen and learn? How do you uphold certain moral standards, while still being loving and merciful to those you befriend?
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Throughout his life Francis’ core message has been anti-ideological. As Austen Ivereigh notes in his biography “The Great Reformer,” Francis has consistently criticized abstract intellectual systems that speak in crude generalities, instrumentalize the poor and ignore the rich idiosyncratic nature of each soul and situation. He has written that many of our political debates are so abstract, you can’t smell the sweat of real life. They reduce everything to “tired, gray cartoon-book narratives.”
Francis’ great gift, by contrast, is learning through intimacy, not just to study poverty but to live among the poor and feel it as a personal experience from the inside. “I see the church as a field hospital after battle,” Francis told the interviewer Father Antonio Spadaro. “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. … Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. … And you have to start from the ground up.”
That closeness teaches you granular details but also arouses a sense of respect. “I see the sanctity of God’s people, this daily sanctity,” Francis has said. “I see the holiness in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces.”
We practice moral and intellectual elitism, looking upward for status and specialized and de-spiritualized knowledge. Francis emphasizes that different kinds of knowledge come from different quarters. As he put it, “This is how it is with Mary: If you want to know who she is, you ask the theologians; if you want to know how to love her, you have to ask the people.”
These days some religious people believe they need to cut themselves off from the corruptions of a decadent modern culture. But Francis argues that you need to throw yourself in the world’s diverse living cultures to see God in his full glory and you need faith to see people in their full depth. He is fond of quoting Dostoyevsky’s line from “The Brothers Karamazov,” “Whoever does not believe in God will not believe in the people of God. … Only the people and their future spiritual power will convert our atheists, who have severed themselves from their own land.”
Francis’ whole approach is personal, intimate and situation-specific. If you are too rigorous and just apply abstract rules, he argues, you are washing your hands of your responsibility to a person. But if you are too lax, and just try to be kind to everybody, you are ignoring the truth of sin and the need to correct it.
Only by being immersed in the specificity of that person and that mysterious soul can you strike the right balance between rigor and compassion. Only by being intimate and loving can you match the authority that comes from church teaching with the democratic wisdom that bubbles from each individual’s common sense.
Francis is an extraordinary learner, listener and self-doubter. The best part of this week will be watching him relate to people, how he listens deeply and learns from them, how he sees them both in their great sinfulness but also with endless mercy and self-emptying love.