Putting God’s house in order

    As Lent reaches its climax in the sorrow of Good Friday, and Catholics anticipate the renewal of Easter, Pope Francis finds himself leading a church very much in need of resurrection.

    The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    In the 12th century a young man knelt in a tumbledown chapel in Italy. He was wealthy, being the son of a merchant, and generous, a party boy popular in all the right circles. But he was looking for meaning in his life. So he had become a soldier and considered making it his career until he was taken captive and became seriously ill. Now free, he had come home to Assisi, and he still didn’t know what to do with his life.

    Kneeling amid the rubble of St. Damian’s Chapel, the young man heard a voice: “Go Francis, and repair my house, which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”

    Francis of Assisi had found his purpose. He gave everything away and became a beggar. For the rest of his life Francis consorted with lepers and other outcasts, and he devoted himself to prayer and good works. Ultimately St. Francis of Assisi attracted more followers as a poor preacher than he had as a fun-loving aristocrat.

    Perhaps the command heard by St. Francis also echoed in the ears of the newly elected Pope Francis as the white cassock was placed on his shoulders. That night, deep in the season for Christian atonement, Pope Francis rose to the head of a church entombed in scandal, its faithful disheartened and drifting, its riches misapplied and squandered, its reputation sabotaged by greed and intrigue among its highest ministers.

    Today, as Lent reaches its climax in the sorrow of Good Friday, and Catholics anticipate the renewal of Easter, Pope Francis finds himself leading a church very much in need of resurrection.

    It can’t yet be said how Francis will proceed. Beyond the surprise of his selection — being a 76-year-old Jesuit from South America — his doctrine is predictably conservative, since no firebrands were in the running. There will be no dramatic reversals on contraception, gay marriage, or the ordination of women.

    Nevertheless, there is reason for optimism among Catholics of all views. Early on, Pope Francis exhibited humility, practicality and even humor, qualities that do not spring to mind when describing the Vatican. As a Jesuit, the pope has taken a vow of poverty, a common promise in religious life, but one that is harder to keep the higher one rises.

    As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the former Cardinal Bergoglio was entitled to a palace, a cook, and a driver. He sold the palace and lived in an apartment. He dismissed the chef and cooked his own meals. He refused the limousine, traversing the city on buses, subways, and even a bicycle. No wonder he was addressed as an ordinary priest would be, “Father,” instead of the proper “Your eminence.”

    Soon after his election, Pope Francis asked Catholics to pray for him. He returned to the pension where he had stayed before the conclave — to pay his bill. He was photographed riding in a minivan with a group of cardinals. The new pope was quoted chiding his colleagues, “May God forgive you,” for electing him. He wandered off prescribed routes to greet and bless well-wishers, taking their hands, patting children’s faces. He was refreshingly unpredictable.

    If Francis’s initial gestures signal his approach in substantive matters, the church could experience an upheaval not seen since 1962, when Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II to clear away Catholic cobwebs.

    Pope Francis won’t revolutionize doctrine. Even so, he will accomplish much toward renewing the Catholic church if he addresses transgressions, reins in hubris, expunges arrogance and hypocrisy, and infuses it with a friendlier tone. If Pope Francis can move the church to more faithfully exemplify the passion and compassion it espouses, he will energize practicing Catholics and inspire new and lapsed members. He will restore the church’s moral standing.

    “Preach the Gospel at all times,” St. Francis of Assisi instructed his followers, “and when necessary, use words.”

    Gathering stones and souls, St. Francis rebuilt a demoralized church in the 12th century. On this Good Friday, the world waits to see if Pope Francis can do the same in the 21st.

    Pamela J. Forsythe is a writer and communications consultant in Philadelphia.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.