Understanding Pope Francis Requires More Than Shallow Thinking
Pope Francis just started Year Three of his papacy, and commentary has been rife with predictions and analysis of what’s still to come, the meaning of his first two years, whether he’s been good or bad, and on down the line. The quality of any article on this particular pope, given his personality and wide-ranging appeal, typically runs the gamut between “Spot on” and “Dude, seriously?” but one in particular may have set a new boundary past the latter.
The article, written by Nicholas Frankovich of the usually-spectacular National Review, bears the title “Pope Francis Enters His Third Year of Scolding Introverts,” so right from the get-go one could guess that the article likely won’t have a positive tone, and perhaps might just amount to a superficial smearfest, as is all-too-common lately in analysis of the Vicar of Christ.
The reality is just that — the article, while of excellent writing quality, is built on a foundation of sand, pointing lots of fingers without any attribution and extrapolating on a false dichotomy in the Church and elsewhere of introversion (which Pope Francis apparently hates) and extroversion (of which Pope Francis is apparently World Champion).
While I think the author’s intentions were good in pursuing this topic, the end result shows instead that personal bias, not critical thinking, came through the loudest.
Again, the basic premise of the article was pitting introversion vs. extroversion, with the author claiming that Pope Francis consistently hates on introverts and encourages everyone to instead become extroverted. This, of course, would be absurd and cause for uproar if it were true.
An army of straw men seem to have found themselves at the mercy of Mr. Frankovich, so here are four keys to understanding Pope Francis correctly:
1. Selfishness is not a synonym for introversion
One of Frankovich’s biggest sticking points comes not from a direct quote by Francis, but instead by another writer opining on the following quote by Francis:
If you withdraw into yourself, you run the risk of becoming egocentric. And stagnant water becomes putrid.
To me, this quote spoke of self-absorption and the selfish tendencies we have as humans in a fallen state — which is far from legitimately supporting a disdain for introverts. Indeed, put in the proper context (which wasn’t included in the opinion piece or Frankovich’s article) we see this is the case, since Pope Francis prefaced the line with, “Be giving of yourself to others.”
If we turn to Philippians, we can plainly see that St. Paul taught something similar:
Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but for those of others. (2:3-4)
The REAL issue (as it has been throughout all of human history) is not about introversion and extroversion, but about two other, completely unrelated things, which brings me to my next point …
2. This is more about “selfishness vs. humility” than it is about “extroversion vs. introversion”
The false dichotomy of introversion vs. extroversion manifested itself in a rather interesting way once Frankovich allowed it to play out. In pegging Pope Francis and Co. as extroverts, he necessarily had to plop all of the Church’s contemplatives — those monks and nuns, past and present, who gave their life in prayer and service to Christ. This poses a bit of a problem.
Lillian Vogl, a reader who posted a rather appropriate comment on the article, wrote:
The difference between extroverts and introverts is not how much they talk or like to interact with others, but how they “recharge their mental batteries.” Pope Francis isn’t criticizing those who prefer to recharge in private contemplation, he’s asking them to not forget what they are recharging their batteries to do. Which is to LOVE, which requires self-giving to others, not to admire oneself in self-satisfaction at one’s intellectual depth and orthodoxy. The Pope is criticizing those who do the latter, not those who find strength through frequent introspection to love their neighbors in any number of ways, whether quiet or bold.
She went on:
Healthy spirituality balances both the horizontal and vertical, and does not get offended about being urged to exercise those muscles which are not as naturally strong. [Speaking to Frankovich] You did not cite a single thing that Pope Francis has actually said to “scold” introverts. He has only scolded the “self-absorbed.” If you hear that and think he is talking about you, then that is a matter for you to work out in your introspective conscience, not to react by spreading the calumny that he is disrespecting introverts.
I don’t think I’ll add anything else … Lillian seems to have it covered.
3. “Being in the world” and “Worldliness” are vastly different things
At the 2013 World Youth Day celebration in Brazil, Pope Francis delivered a brilliant speech to young Catholics gathered there to “make a mess” and to “go out” and evangelize the world. In saying this, the pope was making the same missionary call to Christians that Jesus gave to his disciples 2000 years ago, to “Go!” and “make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19).
Francis went on:
I want a mess in the dioceses! I want people to go out! I want the Church to go out to the street! I want us to defend ourselves against everything that is worldliness, that is installation, that is comfortableness, that is clericalism, that is being shut-in in ourselves. The parishes, the schools, the institutions, exist to go out! If they don’t go out, they become NGOs, and the Church can’t be an NGO.
Dubbed as a “brain-bruising knot of contradictions” by Frankovich, actually understanding the context in which the Holy Father spoke would tell a great deal about the true purpose of these words. Francis is spurring young people to action (which is a great thing), he’s directing them to become more authentic Catholics Christians (which is a great thing), and he’s reminding the universal Church’s youth what the point of the Catholic Church is — to bring souls to Christ and to help people get to heaven through Him (which is the greatest thing of all).
By saying essentially, “go out into the world in order to fight worldliness,” Pope Francis is acknowledging that, though we are born in the world, we must rise above the temptations of the world. Once upon a time, there was a man named Jesus who was also born into the world, and who also rose above the temptations of the world — even with the Devil himself standing next to Him. That’s a valuable distinction that Frankovich missed.
It’s almost as if Pope Francis was alluding to the words of St. Paul yet again:
Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
4. Pope Francis DOES have a robust prayer life.
Throughout the entire article, Frankovich implicitly assumes that Pope Francis is somehow opposed to people whose vocation called them to give their lives in prayer and service to the Church, and in so doing implies that extroverts (the pope included) just don’t have time for prayer. Really?
On his two-year anniversary, Pope Francis related his interior experience on the night he was elected:
During the vote I was praying the rosary, I usually pray three rosaries daily, and I felt great peace, almost to the point of insentience. The very same when everything was resolved, and for me this was a sign that God wanted it, great peace. From that day to this I have not lost it. It is ‘something inside’ it is like a gift. I do not know what happened next. They made [me] stand up. They asked me if I agreed. I said yes. I do not know if they made me swear on something, I forget. I was at peace.
It hardly sounds like a man who doesn’t have a robust interior prayer life and relationship with the Lord. Know what it does sound like, though? From Frankovich’s own hit piece:
From the gospels, we know that Jesus in his own life integrated solitary prayer with the busyness of his public ministry. The pattern was for the former to precede the latter.
Darn, it seems like the pope thwarted that shot too. In fact, Pope Francis is nearly as big a fan of the Blessed Mother as St. John Paul II was, having not only entrusted his pontificate to Mary, but also having said (among many other quotes) about the rosary:
Mary is the mother, and a mother’s main concern is the health of her children … Our Lady guards our health … helps us grow, face life and be free.
A prayer-less extrovert isn’t likely going to receive an interior peace from the Lord out of the blue, much less get elected pope of the universal Church. Good thing our pope is the furthest thing from prayer-less.
Looks like prayer to me…
You wouldn’t know that from Frankovich’s article, and that’s a very sad thing indeed. Our pope may not make everyone feel warm and fuzzy, but neither did Jesus. Our faith is not one of comfort. Our faith is equally difficult for extroverts and introverts, and sufficiently so for each — God guarantees us of that.
Saying Pope Francis is “shallow” or “at least presents himself as such”, that he “preaches mercy for everyone except [introverts]” or “leans left in his politics and theology” (which has been proven wrong time after time), and that he “has little apparent interest in the life of the mind” or “lacks the patience to think slowly” is simply uncharitable and profoundly disrespectful. Especially so when it comes without any attribution to Francis whatsoever, save for second-hand opinions of him.
On top of that, Frankovich puts the icing on the cake with three short sentences in stomping on the New Evangelization: “Drop that sourpuss, Counter-Reformation stance contra mundum. Engage the world with a smile. Let’s dialogue.”
Ultimately, Frankovich makes himself look silly in writing, as a friend of mine put it when bringing the article to my attention, an “article of shallow hating.”
The Catholic Church isn’t an island. We exist in the world with many other faiths, as well as hundreds of thousands of people who currently don’t ascribe to a single one. If we want to grow the Church, we won’t get the job done acting like it sucks to be a Catholic, and we won’t get it done if we don’t engage with others unlike ourselves. We especially won’t get the job done putting people in boxes labeled “Extrovert” or “Introvert” in place of pursuing true Christian virtue regardless of temperament.
We have to go out. We have to set the world ablaze. Whether we’re introverted or extroverted, we must do it authentically, because that’s the witness Christ asked of us.
But maybe most of all, at least for the immediate future, we have to stop bashing our leader, who’s doing a pretty darn good job, whether we think so or not.