Using the figure of Pope Francis for evangelization

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 01, 2014

Pope Francis is often illuminating, yet sometimes frustrating. His words and actions are never bland; in fact, they are nearly always pointed. This accounts for the continued preoccupation of the media, and for the enormous attention he has garnered from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Those who follow Catholic news closely will be fairly familiar with his simple yet striking way of putting things, his many particular acts of humility and pastoral sensitivity, and his willingness to go out of his way to reach out to ordinary people around the world.

The frustration that we sometimes feel is the flip side of the Pope’s simple and direct manner. Since Francis seldom presents his ideas in a highly developed exposition, we are sometimes left wondering exactly what he means or what he intends to do. His quick takes on various spiritual and moral questions often prompt the question, “Yes, yes, but what about…?”

It also seems clear that Pope Francis does not mind consulting with people of quite varied inclinations; nor, apparently, does he mind stirring the pot a bit—as he has done, for example, in implementing curial reform and preparing for the upcoming Synod on the Family.

All of us have our opinions about how Pope Francis has responded to this or that, but he remains difficult for us to categorize. This sometimes worries those of us who prefer everything to be tightly wrapped in neatly labeled boxes. Still, I think most of us have seen the benefit of the Pope’s uncanny ability to keep us just a little off balance. We sense that this significantly reduces our own tendencies to complacency, especially complacency about our habitual judgments.

Francis typically speaks pastorally rather than doctrinally. Catholic doctrine is deep in his bones, but his first step is always to demonstrate his willingness to take others seriously on their own terms. We can be very sensitive to the problems associated with this approach, for the same pastoral emphasis which shakes us into thinking more deeply may be misunderstood by those who are less committed to the Church.

Let me put my finger on the neuralgic point this way: When a person who consistently refuses to subordinate himself to the claims of Christ and His Church says “I really like Pope Francis!” we cannot avoid wondering whether he or she likes him for all the wrong reasons.

One way to ensure that people develop a deeper understanding of the Pope’s life and message is to pass out copies of Andrea Tornielli’s Fioretti: The Little Flowers of Pope Francis. Subtitled “Heartwarming Stories of the Gospel in Action”, this attractive new book from Ignatius Press presents fifty vignettes drawn from Francis’ habits, talks and acts of kindness during the first year-and-a-half of his pontificate. Divided into sections, these “little flowers” exemplify mercy, frugality, sharing, courage and everyday holiness. There are also little flowers on the telephone, little flowers with a smile, and even Marian little flowers.

While some of these anecdotes might be misconstrued by the secular press, taken together they create a real understanding of the Pope’s character, while offering a consistently beautiful invitation to join both Francis and Jesus Christ in the heart of the Church. The simple charm of The Little Flowers of Pope Francis makes the book a marvelous tool for the evangelization of others—or even, if we can but admit the need, for the re-evangelization of ourselves.

For newbies, then, a thirst for Christ; and for old hands, the expansion of what we believe from head to heart.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 01, 2014 5:44 PM ET USA

    Everyone is entitled to prefer the personality of one man over that of another. Without doubting for a second Francis' orthodoxy, I have to say finally that the "Benedict style" is more to my taste; the words of the Regensburg address will register positively long after Francis' several unfortunate newspaper interviews are forgotten. I find the current pope unsettling in an unhealthy way, and I find the ease with which the Church's enemies turn his words to their advantage counterproductive.