On a chilly evening in St. Peter’s Square last week, a little boy upstages Francis. He wanders up to the pope, clings to him, and stays by his side. At one point, as Francis delivers his homily, the boy climbs onto the Papal chair. Francis does not react. He does not guide the boy offstage or direct the Pontifical assistants to do so. All he does is look at the boy with the gentle amusement of an indulged grandfather.
What an uplifting image.
What a refreshing picture of a church whose recent past has been so deeply and darkly stained by such lacerating cruelty to so many of its children. Andrew Sullivan, a dedicated Catholic and vocal admirer of Francis, reacted to the above photograph in even more stark terms: “From raping children to seating them on the papal chair. Know hope.”
As Sullivan notes, moments like this happened often to Jesus. He would be addressing individuals and families, some with children or infants. I’m sure the kids were soon restless, as many of us once were in church, and they began to wander, play games, make noise. And their agitations broke the precious concentration of the adults in the audience. Some of the parents wanted Jesus to bless their children. Accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the same story:
They brought little children to Him… and the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
I recently posted a selection of quotes from great scientists who likened their work to the inquisitive play of children. And maybe the essence of such admissions extends into life’s moral and spiritual spheres as well.
A relevant example. Towards the end of “De Profundis,” the extended letter he wrote while festering in solitary confinement in Reading Goal, Oscar Wilde posed a question to himself: What would he write about if he were ever set free? “Christ as the precursor of the romantic movement” was his answer, on which he elaborated by observing,
[Christ] took children as the type of what people should try to become. He held them up as examples to their elders, which I myself have always thought the chief use of children, if what is perfect should have a use. Dante describes the soul of a man as coming from the hand of God ‘weeping and laughing like a little child,’ and Christ also saw that… He would not hear of life being sacrificed to any system of thought or morals. He pointed out that forms and ceremonies were made for man, not man for forms and ceremonies…
This Wildean take on the Gospels rhymes with Francis’s, which can be further elucidated in the transcript of his first interview with La Civiltà Cattolica. It features the following moments, among others:
I ask Pope Francis point-blank: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” He stares at me in silence. I ask him if I may ask him this question. He nods and replies: “I do not know what might be the most fitting description… I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition of who I am. It is not a figure of speech, a literary category. I am a sinner.”…
The interviewer then asks Francis about how he prays.
[Francis] responds, “I pray the breviary every morning. I like to pray with the Psalms. Then, later, I celebrate Mass. I sometimes pray the Rosary. What I really prefer is adoration in the evening, even when I get distracted and think of other things, or even fall asleep praying. In the evening then, between seven and eight o’clock, I stay in front of the Blessed Sacrament for an hour in adoration. But I pray silently even when I am waiting at the dentist or at other times of the day.”…
Francis is then pressed on the question of what should be the focus of the church. He replies,
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods… We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant.”
A few days ago, Francis further enacted this new Papal approach when he sanctioned Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the so-called “Bishop of Bling”, for spending the equivalent of $43 million on remodeling for his clerical residence. Francis has reclaimed the opulent palace. A section of it is in the process of conversion; the plans are for it to be turned into a soup kitchen for Limburg’s homeless.
Reviving the church by returning to the teachings of Jesus. What a concept.