What Are the Benefits of Having a Rock Star Pope?

The Story:

Everybody is talking about Pope Francis. After being named Time Magazine’s 2013 person of the year, Pope Francis now graces the cover of Rolling Stone, a magazine that is notoriously hostile to the Christian worldview. A Christian leader has not received such an immense amount of positive coverage from secular media since Billy Graham.

What is it about Pope Francis that is capturing the attention of believers and nonbelievers alike?

In his first year alone, during which 6.6 million visitors attended Vatican events, Pope Francis has left us with indelible images that remind us of Christ’s command that we care for the least among usWashing the feet of prisonersblessing a disfigured man, cradling babies, and kissing a disabled man, Pope Francis has exemplified — in a powerful and irresistible way — the genuine love and humility that ought to guide all Christians.

Pope Francis’ immense love for humanity, represented by his disarming grace and gentle smile, has attracted the eyes of a worldwide audience. Since the beginning of his papacy, Francis has expressed his desire to burst out of the Vatican bubble and associate with common people, to ease the sufferings of those who hurt and offer them hope through self-giving love.

Instead of living in the Apostolic Palace, Pope Francis resides in the Vatican guesthouse, where he can more easily interact with others. This summer, “the Cold-Call Pope” phoned people from around the world who had written him letters, providing them with wisdom and encouragement. So long as the weather permits, Pope Francis can be found greeting visitors in St. Peter’s Square after he delivers an address.

Pope Francis’ presentation of the gospel of Christ has proven to have a wide appeal. In the Rolling Stone piece, the author gushes about the way in which Francis, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, “wandered the city’s worst neighborhoods, kissed the feet of AIDS patients in a hospice, heard confessions from prostitutes on park benches, disguised himself in a poncho to march in a slum procession, [and] stood up to drug dealers who threatened one of his priests.”

When asked why Time named Pope Francis its person of the year, Bobby Ghosh, the magazine’s international editor, said, “He’s changed the church’s image as well as its substance. … He’s changed perceptions of the church from being this out-of-touch institution to one that is humble and merciful.”

Is Pope Francis changing the substance of church teaching?

Pope Francis has certainly changed the church’s image, but has he, as Time reports, altered the church’s substance, the church’s most basic message?

If the authors who penned profiles of the Pope in Time and Rolling Stone are believed, then Pope Francis is a conservative-turned-liberal, trying to turn the Vatican on its head, dismissing traditionalists and ushering in a new Catholicism more amenable to a progressive worldview. According to these portrayals, the Pope is a closeted Marxist, a liberation theologian who will use his platform to paint a portrait of a desperate class-struggle that can only be righted by government action.

It is hardly a surprise that secularists would like to claim Pope Francis for themselves, presenting him as a liberal man who plays loosely with doctrine and downplays traditional morality. For who would have the gall to denounce and criticize a man who exhibits a seemingly other-worldly love? And who wouldn’t want such a man to be on his side? As James D. Conley writes at First Things, “The enemy has no interest in eradicating Christianity if he can sublimate it to his own purposes.”

Pope Francis’ presentation is different, but his message is patently Christian.

Whereas Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis’ predecessor, seemed to invoke images of fire and brimstone — in content and in tone — Francis uses his personal flair to make people comfortable. Francis listens well, treating others with respect. As a result of Francis coloring every one of his messages with love, people are much more inclined to give him a hearing. For this reason, Francis has gained a worldwide hearing from the most unlikely sources.

Francis leads with love. But a change in emphasis — from judgment to love — does not mean that Francis has ignored the tragic reality of sin, its disastrous consequences, or the universal human need for redemption which can only be actualized through Christ. Underlying the gospel of love is a gospel of judgment, since our merciful God is also a just God who demands satisfaction for our sins.

Pope Francis, a self-proclaimed son of the church, abides by the teaching of the church. In a letter to a colleague, Francis called gay marriage a “total rejection of the law of God.” When speaking about abortion in his state of the world address, Pope Francis decried the practice as a horrific evil, which tramples on human dignity and is representative of a “throwaway culture.”

“Unfortunately, what is thrown away is not only food and dispensable objects,” the Pope said, “but often human beings themselves, who are discarded as ‘unnecessary.’ For example, it is frightful even to think there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day.”

On economic matters, Pope Francis reportedly scathed free-market capitalism in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). But in this document, Francis states that business is a vocation and that work is an ennobling feature of man’s existence, which enables him to “serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.” Additionally, Francis criticizes a welfare mentality that fosters dependency on government programs instead of helping the poor climb out of poverty.

Describing Pope Francis’ perspective, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan states, “Pope Francis would be the first to say, ‘My job isn’t to change church teaching. My job is to present it as clearly as possible. … While certain acts may be wrong … we will always love and respect the person and treat the person with dignity.”

Although Cornell West has called Pope Francis a “gift from heaven, a prophetic voice willing to be a critic of capitalism and imperialism,” Francis has dissociated himself from any such aim, saying, “I speak … with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology.”

Although popular media outlets are attempting to co-opt Francis’ message, they are still lauding his humanity, mercy, and love. Although Time and Rolling Stone might distort Francis’ gospel message, they have granted Francis — and his Christian faith — a broader audience. We can’t let fear prevent us from proclaiming the gospel joyfully and boldly (2 Tim 1:7). The author of Proverbs pokes fun at the lazy person, full of excuses, who does not go outside for fear that he might meet a lion in the street and be killed (Prov. 22:13). Francis says, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Pope Francis’ style of presentation has gained Christians an audience. Now Christians must use this opportunity to gently speak truth, to bring people into the house of God, and to share the biblical worldview.

Sermon Insights:

Passage: Luke 19:1-10 — The Story of Jesus and Zacchaeus

What attracted Zacchaeus to Jesus? 

Zacchaeus, an influential tax-collector who became rich by overcharging others, was desperate to see Jesus. But what was it about Jesus that made Zacchaeus seek after him so zealously? It is likely that Jesus was affable and approachable. Why else would the crowds swarm him everywhere He went? As Jesus walked from town to town teaching, healing, and fulfilling the will of His Father in heaven, He attracted not only believers and faithful Jews, but also nonbelievers and sinful tax collectors. Jesus’ universal message demands a universal audience, which, as Jesus showed, is attained by engaging in acts of love that are downright shocking to worldly observers. Like Zacchaeus climbing a tree in order to see Jesus, Rolling Stone and Time Magazine have settled on a perch and shined a light on Francis, giving him a rather unique stage from which to reach the lost.

Did Jesus rebuke Zacchaeus for his worldliness or reach out to him in love? 

Jesus’ first words to Zacchaeus were simply, “Quick, come down! For I must be a guest in your home today.” Jesus did not mention Zacchaeus’ occupation or his unscrupulous activities. Instead, Jesus sought out a man who was hurting, fellowshipped with him at the table, learned about him, and loved him.

How did the crowds respond to Jesus’ behavior?

The crowds, we are told by Luke the Evangelist, were displeased, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner.” Many Christians find Pope Francis’ method of communicating the gospel troubling and dislike the coverage he is receiving from Rolling Stone, thinking perhaps that a Christian has no place in the pages of a notoriously anti-Christian magazine. But Jesus did not listen to the crowds. Instead, He stayed true to His mission and never altered his message. Confident that God would protect His truth from any possible distortion, Jesus proclaimed the gospel to all who would listen, teaching those who refused to believe and healing those who refused to be thankful. Though He was ultimately rejected by His people, Jesus continued to preach in word and in deed to all who had ears to hear.

How did Zacchaeus respond to Jesus’ message?

We are not told much about Zacchaeus aside from his occupation and his desire to see Jesus. What we do know, however, is that Zacchaeus, after receiving personal attention from Christ, heeded Christ’s words to repent and live righteously. The readers of Time and Rolling Stone may, as a result of Francis, think that the God of love does not care about justice or righteous living. They would be wrong. Zacchaeus, emboldened by Christ’s presence in his own home, could have considered it an unspoken sanction of his behavior. Zacchaeus would have been wrong. Zacchaeus knew that if he wanted the affirmation of Christ and the reward of abundant life, then he would have to change his lifestyle. Jesus bluntly spoke of sin, hell, and salvation. So should we, after we reach out to the lost with love.