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“America is Hungry for Moral Leadership”: A Rabbi Comments on the Francis Phenomenon

WEB Pope Francis The Drawing Hands

The Drawing Hands

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 01/03/14

Pope Francis' refreshment of the Gospel is what draws so many in such a profound way.

“The Francis Phenomenon” is a phrase that is catching on for media pundits to comment on the wild popularity of Pope Francis. Writing in the Huffington Post, Reformed Jewish rabbi Eric Yoffie observes that America is hungry for God, hungry for moral leadership, and hungry for positive role models. Pope Francis is helping to feed that hunger.

Rabbi Yoffie recognizes the spiritual malaise in the United States. Doubt about the country’s future, cynicism about its leaders, and the seeming collapse of organized religion all point to a bleak future without hope and faith. Then along comes Pope Francis.

Yoffie points out:

“Not only does the Pope have an approval rating of almost 90 percent among American Catholics, but among all Americans, nearly 3 in 4 view him favorably. In the very early days of his papacy, the interest and excitement in his selection could be seen as a media-generated blip; but, 10 months later, there is clearly something more at work here. What could possibly account for the affection and regard in which this man – the ultimate "establishment" religious figure, head of the largest religious bureaucracy in the world – is held?”

The rabbi is correct to point out that the Francis phenomenon is more than left-wingers being delighted with what they perceive as the Catholic Church’s shift in their direction. Neither is it merely the freshness of Pope Francis’s style. Something deeper is taking place. What are the crowds attracted to? Rabbi Yoffie puts his finger on it:

“What they do see, I think, is the profound authenticity of his leadership. Hungry for role models and desperate for authority figures with credible values and a true moral center, Americans are drawn to Pope Francis because of their sense that he speaks from principle and actually lives the values that he teaches. And not only that; he also radiates compassion and humility, as well as respect for those in our human family with whom he differs. The result is that for Americans, he generates hope among the murk and morass of everyday life, keeping us facing, even in tough times, in the direction of humanity.”

I agree with the rabbi’s assessment, but there is even more to it. Pope Francis seems to have taken us beyond Catholicism to Christ. What I mean by this is that he has opened our eyes to the charism and person of Jesus Christ himself. We are able to see through Francis the man from Nazareth who heals the sick, welcomes the little children, forgives the sinner and lives with the simplicity, naturalness, and freedom that comes from genuine holiness. Jesus was not all honey. He spoke vinegar to the hypocrites, the rich, the hard-hearted and the religiously self-righteous. So does Francis.

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This refreshment of the Gospel that we see in Pope Francis is what draws so many in such a profound way. When I say that he has taken us beyond Catholicism to Christ, I mean that he has done this without denying any aspect of the fullness of the faith. In saying that he has taken us “beyond religion,” I mean that he has taken us through our religion to Jesus Christ, who is the “author and finisher of our faith.” In other words, he has helped us to use our Catholic religion for its sole purpose: to put us in touch with Christ the Lord.

As others have observed, Pope Francis is putting into action what his two predecessors taught with faithfulness, shrewdness, and love. As he has said numerous times, he is a “loyal son of the Church”. Therefore we can expect in this next year to see him hold firm on the doctrines and moral teachings of the faith while continuing his ministry of reconciliation, welcome, and compassion. In his words and works, we can expect him to continue to point us beyond religion to Jesus Christ himself.

As he moves into the second year of his papacy, I predict that the honeymoon period will come to an end. Those who enjoy entrenched positions in the church may find their security challenged. Some Catholics who dislike and distrust the new pope may find themselves in a position of dissent and even disobedience. Many of those outside the Church who have been attracted to him will soon realize that he is the Pope and will be disappointed to find that he will continue to uphold Catholic moral teaching and Catholic doctrine. Many who now approve of him will change their minds.

That will not be the whole story, however.  I believe this papacy will bear rich fruit. Already I see priests and people in the Church listening carefully to his call. They are finding ways to emulate him and reach out in new ways. The New Evangelization is beginning to snowball, and with Pope Francis in the lead, the good news of Jesus Christ present in the fullness of the Catholic faith will reverberate around the world, bringing the new springtime that our Church and our world so desperately needs.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary, Greenville, SC. His latest book, The Romance of Religion, will be published by Thomas Nelson in February.

Pope Francis
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