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The Francis Factor: Kerry Robinson

It is fortuitous and providential that this morning I was given today’s Scripture readings to prepare Lenten reflections for the faith community to which I belong, St. Thomas More, the Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale University. The readings are challenging; they admonish us for our hypocrisy and warn us not to be boastful and puff ourselves up with our piety and our religious practice, especially if our actions don’t follow suit. I realize the irony of standing before 3,000 people boasting that I actually know today’s readings and prayed with them, when this religious self-promotion is exactly what Scripture tells us not to do! I bring this to your attention, however, because these readings hold a clue to why the whole world seems transfixed by and drawn to Pope Francis. It is as though Pope Francis has taken to heart and internalized the essential message of today’s readings. Namely, his actions match his words. He embraces humility. He leads with mercy. He is other-centered.

When he was asked, “Who is Pope Francis?” he responded, “I am a sinner.”  He embraces the disfigured; has a birthday party and invites homeless men and women as his guests; washes and kisses the foot of a young Muslim woman in prison on Holy Thursday. Catholics and non-Catholics alike are drawn to the wonderful example of this man. And as I asked myself over and over again, “What is it about him that so captures our imagination?” I realized that he has restored our faith in humankind, and that if we think about it, he reminds us of the countless women and men, ordained, religious and lay, Catholics and non-Catholics, who will never command a global stage; who will never be famous; but who daily live lives of mercy and love and justice and compassion and joy and purpose. They are Christ-like, as he is. And because he doesn’t want to be put on a pedestal, doesn’t want to be depicted as  “Super Pope,” we are invited to identify with him as deeply human, first and foremost, as a sinner.  It may seem we are incapable of making a meaningful difference in the lives of others, but in fact, we can, daily, in simple and profound acts of mercy and compassion. I believe the most important Francis Factor is the invitation to all of us to be Christ-like in the way that Pope Francis is, through his invitation to us encounter the poor, the materially and the spiritually poor. Not just be aware of the poor, not just work on behalf of the poor, but to encounter and accompany the poor, and thus be transformed ourselves.

The second observation that I offer you is Pope Francis’s priority on positive managerial reform. And his great wisdom in appointing Cardinal Seán O’Malley to the important committee of eight Cardinal advisors. Again in managerial reform, looking at the first year of his pontificate, his actions match his words.

Just last week I was invited to the Vatican to address 500 treasurers of men’s and women’s religious communities from around the world on the proper care of finances and other ecclesiastical goods entrusted to religious communities. The National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management has a 10-year jumpstart on these very matters. Our network was born of great love of the Church and a desire to see the Church be the gold standard of openness, accountability, transparency, ethics and excellence in the way it cares for people, facilities and finances. This goal is especially important because the mission of the Church is that much more important than the bottom line of a corporation.

My third observation echoes what Helen Alvare so eloquently said and it has to do with specifically with women. Again last week in the Vatican, I celebrated International Women’s Day with a TEDx style celebration of the voices of women of faith from all over the globe. These are the unsung heroines who are daily living out their faith in the world. They are combating human trafficking. They are going to the depths of refugee camps. They are educating the poor. They are providing food for the hungry. They are joyful and intentional in their radical service. They serve as moral heroines for us to emulate. Pope Francis reminds me of them. When we witness faith in action, mercy, compassion, courage in the advancement of justice and peace, humility, joy, stewardship of creation and reverence for life, we are ennobled. We are reminded of Christ and invited to embrace such life-giving, meaningful, other-centered purpose.

I want to suggest that we heed Pope Francis’s call for a more “incisive presence of women” in the Church. Collectively let us find opportunities for meaningful leadership roles for women in the Church and in the Roman Curia and ensure that women have places at the table of decision making. This is not solely for the sake of women; this is for the sake of the Church. The whole Church is impoverished without the contribution of the talents of profoundly capable and inspired women leaders.

Let me suggest that when we contemplate and pray about the symbolism and importance of our leader choosing the name Francis and all that it connotes--love of creation, love of the poor, simplicity, stewardship of the earth--we consider something else as well: the role, importance and positive effect St. Clare had on St. Francis and vice versa. Perhaps we can include this in our own spiritual reflection and find ways to act on the most beneficial aspects of such mutuality and collaboration for the sake of the Gospel and for the sake of the mission of the Church.