Embracing His People
Pope Francis Draws Them Toward God’s Love
By Simcha Fisher
Editor’s Note: The following essay by Parable Magazine contributing writer Simcha Fisher is among a collection of works by prominent Catholic writers recently published in the book, A Pope Francis Lexicon (Liturgical Press, 2018), in recognition of the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ papacy. Each writer chose a particular word important to the pope’s ministry. Simcha focused her reflections on the word “Embrace.”
Raise your hand if you remember the first time we met Pope Francis. He stood on the balcony at St. Peter’s, his own arm raised in greeting as he stepped out into the night to meet his flock.
Many thought he looked miserable—and stunned. If Catholics were expecting our new papa to match our exuberance, we were disappointed. He had, in fact, already booked his ticket home to Argentina.
But he submitted to the church. He was elected, and there he stood, facing the multitudes as they roared a welcome, his arm raised to greet them; and then he asked for our prayers. Catholics swarmed all over that request, more than making up for his initial reluctance. We clasped our new father to our bosom, enveloping him with love and enthusiasm. Several years into his papacy, he now clearly relishes his role.
That first unequal embrace between papa and church was a good introduction to a pope who frequently uses the word “embrace” when he speaks of spiritual growth; and it endures as a symbol of how he approaches his role, and how he understands the way God and man will be reconciled.
Pope Francis is often chastised for what some see as a folksy, imprecise, emotional brand of faith that winks at the law. All those hugs! Who was ever saved because of a hug? Our savior redeemed us by fulfilling the law on a cross, not by giving us a big hug!
Indeed. Francis knows as well as anyone that an embrace is not a miracle. When he tenderly embraced the tumor-ridden head of the unfortunate pilgrim Vinicio Riva, he did not expect the man to be instantly healed. When we enter into an embrace—either a physical one offered by our fellow Catholics or a spiritual one offered by the Church—we are not automatically reconciled to each other or to God, nor do we automatically understand and accept our obligations.
And yet Pope Francis continues to insist on coming together, accompanying, seeking union, and—yes—embracing each other. Is this just naiveté? Does he really think huggy togetherness is an adequate substitute for orthodoxy? Let’s look at how he uses that word “embrace.”
Parable Of The Prodigal Son
He frequently references the parable of the Prodigal Son, dwelling on the father’s joy as he enfolds his wayward child in his arms, restoring him to the favored position that he had squandered. The father calls their meeting a resurrection: his son was dead, and now he is alive again. This is an imbalanced embrace, at least at first. The forgiving father is far more enthusiastic than the son, who is humiliated and downcast, hoping only for scraps.
Pope Francis says of this parable that the father makes the son understand that he was always considered a son, in spite of everything. This teaching of Jesus is very important: our condition as children of God is the fruit of the love of the Father’s heart; it does not depend on our merits or on our actions, and thus no one can take it away, not even the devil! No one can take this dignity away.
The restorative power of the embrace comes entirely from the love of the father, who represents not only forgiveness but order; whose love restores the son to his place within the orderly structure of his father’s household. The son left and behaved lawlessly; he returns to the father purely out of need; the father embraces him with tender love; and the order of the household is restored. Both love and law are entangled in that embrace between unequals.
In Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia, an entire passage titled “The Tenderness of an Embrace” also speaks of an imbalanced embrace, comparing the relationship of Christ and the Church to a child “sleeping in his mother’s arms after being nursed.” Francis says: “As the Hebrew word gamûl suggests, the infant is now fed and clings to his mother, who takes him to her bosom. There is a closeness that is conscious and not simply biological” (AL 28).
Within that embrace, the mother loves her child all the more because he is helpless and needy. We do not think of a mother primarily as powerful, or as feeding her child merely as an obligation. She willingly cares for the helpless child and feeds him because she loves him; and because she loves him, she uses her strength rightly. Tenderness and obligation are inextricable, both folded into that loving embrace.
Strikingly, in that same passage, the pope draws together the notion of tenderness and the notion of the strictures of law, of obligation. He quotes Hosea: “When Israel was a child, I loved him. ... I took them up in my arms ... I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them” (Hos 11:1, 3-4).
The pope is speaking not only of tender feelings, but of obligation. When we enter into a loving embrace where there is this imbalance of power, we will be called upon to submit to the law: to receive the love of God and, by that love, be strengthened to fulfill our obligation to the law. Law and love cannot be disentangled, but love leads us to the law.
The Embrace Is Where We Meet God
Christ is the fulfillment of the law. Christ is love. Christ was that vulnerable child who was nursed by his mother. Christ was tried under law and executed. Christ is the bleeding outcast, the untouchable. Christ is the only one who will embrace us in our misery. Christ is the son of the Father, who asked that the cup might pass from him, but who submitted when he was chosen. Christ sets loving burdens on us. Christ lovingly bears them with us.
It is messy. The embrace is messy. When the law and love meet, one may overwhelm the other. But that perilous moment of contact, between the reluctant and the effusive, between the vulnerable and the strong, between justice and mercy: that is where we meet God. This is where we meet love forever blessedly entangled with law. If this kind of embrace is naive, then Christ is naive.
This is why Pope Francis so often confounds his critics. On the far left and on the far right, people keep expecting him to say the law doesn’t really matter. He is hard to triangulate, since he speaks and dwells in a messy, perilous, imbalanced place, where forgiveness and tenderness are tangled together with obligation.
Pope Francis famously urged his flock to “make a mess.” Some took his words and tone as an invitation to flout the law, to follow pure desire. He has caused confusion. He has caused tumult. Also, he has drawn in prodigal sons. He has made the angry, the guilty, the doubtful, the lost think they might return to their father’s house again.
And they might. They might not. The embrace is not a miracle. It is an invitation. It is messy and uncertain, but it is most certainly how Christ himself behaved at least some of the time.
Bishop Libasci reflects on Pope Francis’ papacy
From the moment Pope Francis first stepped onto the balcony at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in a simple white cassock and silver pectoral cross rather than the ermine-trimmed cape and gold crucifix worn by his predecessors, the world knew this pope would be different. In the five years since, Pope Francis has shown these were not empty gestures. He has focused his pontificate on the works of healing, mercy and hope, calling on the faithful to join him as “missionary disciples” in bringing God’s love to the lost, the least and the lonely, the poor and powerless, the immigrants and refugees.
Reflecting on the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ papacy, Manchester Bishop Peter A. Libasci sends his blessings to a pope who inspires by making simple things holy and ordinary tasks sacred.
Take wood, for instance, the traditional gift given for a fifth anniversary. Bishop Libasci remembers when Pope Francis traveled to the Italian island of Lampedusa to pray for the hundreds of immigrants who perished when their boats capsized off its coast while seeking asylum in Europe. In blessing the cross an island native crafted from the wood of these shipwrecked vessels, the pope transformed it into a powerful symbol of the dangers immigrants and asylum seekers face.
“Isn’t it something?” the Bishop asks. “Wood that might be taken for granted, Pope Francis took these shards of wood that symbolized and reminded him of people looking for a new life. As they died in their quest, he made that sacrifice holy. Yes, blessed fifth anniversary, Pope Francis, by the wood of the cross.
“On this fifth anniversary, let’s remember the immigrants. Let’s remember our refugees and the number of refugees we have, especially in Manchester, Nashua and Concord,” Bishop Libasci continues. “Let’s remember, too, all the French-Canadians who came down to work in the lumbering industries. Let’s remember the Irish, the Polish and the Germans who came to work in the mills. Pope Francis blesses the labor of so many.”
Noting silverware is the modern gift given to celebrate a fifth anniversary, Bishop Libasci says here, again, Pope Francis has something to teach us. The pope wears a pectoral cross of silver, not gold, that bears the image of the Good Shepherd carrying his sheep on his shoulders.
“A strange shape, but doesn’t everyone look for silverware with a special pattern?” Bishop asks. “So whenever we pick up our flatware or silverware to eat our dinner, the pope would have us remember the poor and the hungry and our Catholic Charities’ Food Bank and our many food pantries. Yes, Pope Francis, by the sign of the cross, we will remember and care for the poor.”
– Kathryn Marchocki –