Pope Francis will be spending the first anniversary of his election to the See of Peter – on Thursday, March 13 – on retreat, away from the Vatican, outside of Rome, and largely out of the media spotlight. The timing is perhaps just coincidence – or providence – because this happens to be the first week of Lent, and for many years the Pope and the top members of the Curia have gone on their annual retreat during the first week of Lent. But, regardless, it is fitting. The man who began his papacy a year ago by asking the people of the world to pray for him is spending this anniversary focused on intensive prayer and renewal – the conversion of heart that should mark these Lenten days for all of us.
Many people these days are commenting on the first year of Pope Francis – how he has won over the world (and many in the media), given a new style of leadership in the Catholic Church, and caused non-Catholics to pay more attention to the Catholic Church, often in a positive light. A lot of people talk about Pope Francis as a revolutionary – although he is not moving fast enough for some, and has gone too far for others. For me, there are two themes that have had the most impact over the past year – the Pope as Pastor, and the Pope as Teacher. As a pastor, Pope Francis is close to the people – sharing in their joys and hopes, their grief and anxieties – and encourages all other pastors in the Church to do the same. As a teacher, Pope Francis has been reminding us of the most basic teachings of the faith – the centrality of the person of Jesus Christ, the transforming power of the Sacraments, the call to solidarity and love for those most in need. None of this is new – but as Pope Francis has been pastor and teacher to us over the past year, they are reminders that we all need to hear, and many more ears have been opened to listen to what the Bishop of Rome is saying.
Before last spring’s Conclave, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, said that the primary quality the Cardinals would be looking for in a Pope is someone who reminds us of Jesus – someone whose words, actions, and witness can help lead us to know Jesus more and more ourselves. Many people would agree that Pope Francis reminds us of Jesus – as did so many of the popes who came before him. But that is our task as well – to live so united to Christ that when people see us, they see a glimpse of Jesus. Not a perfect reflection – perhaps just dimly, as in a mirror, using an image from St. Paul. But in some measure, all Christians should – in their words, actions, and witness – look like Jesus, and thus lead others to want to know, love, and serve our God as well. If there is really to be a Pope Francis effect in the Church and the world, it should actually be a Jesus effect, a sign that Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Son of Mary, is still alive and active and can still change the world. Because people like you and me – and, yes, like Pope Francis – are striving day by day to renew our hearts and minds so that we live, no longer ourselves, but Christ lives in us and through us.