Papa Francis, The Prodigal, and “the Good Son.”

How do you feel about Pope Francis’ style?

I’ve been praying a lot about my reactions to Pope Francis as well the reactions I have read from my fellow Catholic culture warriors.    I have friends–sometimes of the more liberal persuasion (but not all)–who think Pope Francis is an incredible breath of fresh air.  I have other friends–usually more conservative–who can’t believe how much this guy is, in their minds, stinking up the joint.

Ambivalence Observed

As for me, well, I’ve been ambivalent–and honestly, I’ve been troubled and a little ashamed–of my reactions.  In the first place, I have always thought of myself as “the Pope’s man.”  I was 11 when Pope John Paul II was elected to the Throne of Peter and 38 when he died.  I loved him.   I have largely formed my life according to his teachings.    I grew up challenging myself to see marriage and family life through the lens of his Theology of the Body and to do my best to both live out and promote the Church’s vision of life and love.    The same went for Benedict, who was at least a continuation of JPII’s thinking if not his style.  I was fascinated by their minds, intrigued by what I could learn at their feet, and eager to put into practice everything I learned from them, because even though living out their words didn’t necessarily win me any popularity contests by the world’s standards, their counsel taught me how to live a truly blessed life filled with love and faith and joy.  Because of all this, I have, as long as I can remember, had a strong appreciation for the office of the pope.


Which is why my reactions to Pope Francis have bothered me so much.  On the one hand, I find much to admire.  His simplicity.  His heart.  His genuine love for people.  His obvious love for Christ.  On the other hand, I have been genuinely put off–sometimes even angered–by a lot of things he has said that, frankly, have made my job harder.

Remember, most of what I do all day in counseling and on the radio is try to help people live out the Catholic vision of love, sex, and marriage.   In the last several weeks alone, I have had people challenge me in ways I haven’t encountered before.  It used to be that when I made some statement about the Church’s positions on marriage, love and sex, people would accept it.  They wouldn’t always like it, but they knew it was true.   They knew it was true, because even if they didn’t exactly get it, they knew what I was saying at least sounded like what they heard Pope JPII or Pope Benedict say.    But now, all of a sudden, I’m getting a kind-of push back I haven’t experienced before.  “Well, the POPE, said…”  Or,  “That’s not what Pope FRANCIS said the other day….”  As if I haven’t read the same interviews.   Then, when I try to explain what the Pope actually said, for the first time, people are accusing me not of trying to faithfully represent Church teaching, but of engaging in “conservative spin.”    It’s particularly frustrating for me, because the contexts for these discussions are often not some bar or church basement where I’m having a friendly argument with someone to pass the time, but counseling sessions where marriages and families and lives are at stake.    For heaven’s sake, I recently had a client who was struggling with serious faith issues and depression quit counseling with me a few weeks ago because, in his words, “I’m much more of a Pope Francis/Nancy Pelosi Catholic and you’re an old-school, Pope John Paul II Catholic.”

Ouch.  How did that sting me?  Let me count the ways….

So, yes.  I’ve been…disturbed by a lot of what Pope Francis has been saying–or, perhaps more accurately, by how people have too easily been twisting what he has been saying.  At the same time, I believe in the papacy.  I believe the Holy Spirit has a great deal to do with who sits in the Chair of Peter.  I believe that God knows what he is doing in the Church and even if the papal election is a very human process, I believe that God wants to use whomever is elected to teach us–to teach me–something important about being Catholic at this time in history.  And so, unlike a lot of other people who have been openly angry about Pope Francis, I have tried to stay quiet, to talk through my feelings with a few mature Christians I trust, and, most importantly, to pray.  A lot.

The Return of the Prodigal

The past weekend, God smacked me upside the head with an insight that has been convicting me hard ever since.  As I was praying, I was suddenly reminded–or, really, more like slapped in the face with the memory of–the Prodigal Son.  Well, not the prodigal son, exactly. That would have been OK.  I’m fine being the Prodigal Son.  But no.  That wasn’t who God was reminding me of.  Suddenly, it was like God took my face in his hands and pointed me at a mirror, and I saw…the good son.  The good kid who stayed behind, did everything his father told him to do, was probably a little glad to see his annoying, pain-in-the-ass brother leave in the first place,  and was more than a little upset to see him come back.  You know, the one with the stick up his rear-end whom everyone acknowledges but no one wants to be like.

God showed me that I was being the “good son.”  And I heard a voice say, “My lost children are coming home.  And you are angry.”

And I remembered the words of the story…

Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

And I started to cry.


Here, in Francis, my Papa was running out into the street to meet my brothers and sisters who were lost but now found.   He was killing the fatted calf and putting the finest robes on them.  He was giving them his ring.   And here I was, stuck doing the same damn thing I’ve always been doing and getting even less thanks for it.   People who left the Church, who hated the Church (and yes, hated and sometimes abused me for loving it), who wouldn’t give the Church a second glance were suddenly realizing that God loved them, that the Church welcomed them, and all I could do was feel bitter about it.  Because it was a fricking inconvenience to me.   I didn’t feel bitter because I don’t love them.   I do.  It wasn’t that I don’t want them to know how much they are loved and welcome.  I do.  But I was bitter because, to be perfectly honest, having to love them the way they are today makes my life harder than I would like it to be.   It isn’t enough for me to  just make statements and then sit in my rightness and be right.   All of a sudden, I have to really listen, to deal with the mess of their lives and put up with–no, actually respect— their “who do you think YOU are?” attitudes.    Yes, I loved them,  truly, but not enough.  Pope Francis was showing me that for all my brave words and self-congratulatory thoughts about my commitment to love my neighbor, I loved my comfort zone a little more than I loved my brother and sister who were coming home after a long time of suffering and loneliness.

And I felt ashamed.

Love and Truth

None of this is to say that the Church’s teachings on love, sex and marriage aren’t true.  And I think Pope Francis is showing us this too.   Likewise, none of this is to say that I have to pretend that the Church’s vision of life shouldn’t be upheld, taught, and proclaimed boldly.  But it is to say that preaching to an empty house, or limiting myself to too easy conversations with only the brothers and sisters who agree with me is useless.  I can still have those discussions I love so much, fight for those causes that matter so much, but first I have to get past the pride and joy I get from “being right.”  From being “the right kind of Catholic.”  From being “the good son.”  I have to show my brothers and sisters that I love them–first and always.  That I want them sitting next to me even though we don’t see eye-to-eye.   I have to be willing to learn from them as much as teach.  To acknowledge that they have things to offer me and that I am glad to be related to them even though we make each other uncomfortable sometimes.   If I can do that, if I can show them the love that Jesus has truly placed in my heart,  then I can have all the family arguments I want–and heck, maybe even win a few of them.  But if they don’t feel the love of Jesus radiating out of me, what’s the use in any of it?  Without love, I am no prophet.  I am just a clanging gong.  A noisy cymbal.

I think I’m starting to get it.  I think God, through Pope Francis, is reminding me that being right is fine, but I need to be even more committed to love because it is love that wins men’s hearts.  It goes back to what Pope Benedict said in Caritas in Veritatem, that taken together, love and truth prevent love from being reduced either to mere sentimentality or fideism.  God is reminding me that I still  have a way to go before I have mastered that art.

“Everything I Have is Yours…”

I guess I’m still processing all this, but in the last few days, I find myself a lot less disquieted by Pope Francis words and even the ways people are trying to twist them.  Let Papa bring my brothers and sisters home.  I love them and I will welcome them.  And I will be happy to continue the family arguments with them, because now that they are coming back home, I can.

Finally, to all my  brothers and sisters who are also my fellow “good sons and daughters” who feel as if their legs have been cut out from underneath them as the very people Pope Francis is running to meet accept his love but twist his words, perhaps we can all take a little comfort along with God’s conviction as we meditate on the Father’s words to the good son at the end of the story.

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

And more importantly,  perhaps we “good sons and daughters” in the family can yet find a place in our hearts for our  returning brothers and sisters and even happily join the party our Papa is throwing for them.

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