Over the last couple of days I’ve seen a couple of posts on Facebook about Pope Francis. One was a link to a blog post written by an atheist who has been impressed with what he’s seen of Francis so far: his simplicity, his frugality, his sense of humor, his willingness to reach out and touch people. Another was from a Facebook friend who is distressed that the Pope in his quest for simplicity seems to be pulling the beauty out of everything. The three natural paths to God are Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and she is especially uplifted by the Beauty she sees the Pope as turning away from. (I sympathize with her, although I’d be more concerned if it seemed that the Pope was going to try to make his simple tastes universal in the Church.)
But back to the atheist. He is seeing something in the Pope that he did not expect, something that surprises him, something that he finds attractive. This Pope has done so many things no pope has ever done before, like washing a woman’s feet.
This is huge.
Yes, I know—the media delights in presenting Francis as something new, as though Benedict wasn’t simple and humble and had no concern for the poor. And many of the factual details that the atheist cites are not quite true, or not all true, or are true but misleading. But the core of it is that Francis is indeed humble and simple and frugal and loves the poor. And this man sees that, and is attracted to it.
And this, I say, is huge.
In Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell says that conversion to Christianity always begins with a bridge of trust: some person, some thing, some fact, that the individual finds trustworthy. It can be big or small, vital or trivial (at least, as seen from the outside), but it has to be there. And it doesn’t really matter whether the person understands the thing he trusts in, or sees it clearly, not yet. What matters is that there is a channel through which the person might begin to be able to begin to learn more without discounting it out of hand.
The Christian faith isn’t a set of propositions to be learned; the Christian faith is a Person to come to know. And it all begins with a bridge of trust.
God is infinite, and so infinitely surprising. This is a good thing, because we are all so bound and determined to see what we expect to see that it takes surprise to catch our notice, so that we can see what’s really there. Those who know the Church only from old movies expect pomp and circumstance and robes and lace and candles and baroque splendor. They do not expect care for the poor and simplicity and humility, even though these have always been part of the Church. And so Francis surprises them with what they do not expect. They think it is new, and unusual; in fact, it is the simply the Stone that the builders rejected. Let’s not tell them that, shall we?
Not until they are curious enough to ask….