His book on the Lord's Prayer shows a Pope determined to cut through the waffle
The faith of Pope Francis is dynamic, urgent, revolutionary. In ‘Our Father: Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer’, based on an interview with a prison chaplain, the pontiff talks his way through the pater noster, reflecting on all its personal and universal meanings.
One of the joys of this Pope is his straightforwardness: this isn’t one of those dreary bishop’s letters that reads as if the writer is terrified his words may someday be quoted back to him in a court of law. If you want to know what Francis thinks, inference is quite unnecessary. It’s all there in his own words.
He dislikes bankers (they love it when God forgives their debts, he jokes, but not when He asks them to forgives others’) and preaches a “preference for the poor.” Beggars, says Francis, are the protagonists of history: “not only the material beggar but ourselves too, spiritual beggars.” Satan is real. You can almost imagine Francis’s eyes narrowing when he covers the subject: “Satan is very courteous; he knocks at the door, rings, and enters with typical seductions.” It’s no surprise that his Holiness quotes here, as he did in his first homily, from Leon Bloy, the half-mad French writer who regarded the rich as fallen: “He who does not pray to God, prays to Satan.”
So, is Francis a pansy poet liberal? No. He rejects the notion of a “cosmic” God for a personal one – the Father. One of the world’s biggest problems, he says, “is we have gone so far as to affirm that we are a fatherless society.” We are orphans from both God and man, wandering around lost and lawless, almost like “animals”.
Francis’ conception of fatherhood is not Victorian moralism or a “buddy” who treats his children as equals, but loving authority. He tells a sweet story of when he had his tonsils out as a child. His father took him home in a taxi, soothing and explaining everything that was going on. “The memory of this experience, with a father who teaches and explains, especially when we are experiencing pain, gives us an idea of our relationship with God.”
Francis wants a church that never lets go. A lot of commentators point to the miseries of being a priest in Argentina – a fascist dictatorship – as psychological explanations of some of his more authoritarian characteristics. Maybe it explains his obsession with reconciliation? “Shame is a grace”, he writes. I agree: just as physical pain tells us there’s something wrong with our body, so guilt is an alarm bell for the soul. Francis is concerned that the Church reacts to shame either with condemnation or so much red tape that the sinner runs away, which is a tragedy given that the cure lies in the Eucharist.
In perhaps the most radical part of his book, he suggests there are two possible endings to the life of Judas. One is “despair”: in shame, the traitor hanged himself. The other is redemption: in acknowledging his guilt, Judas was saved by a God who forgives “everything”. The Church, concludes Francis, must lead people away from despair and towards the Father. This beautifully sums up his complex views on Communion for the remarried. Whatever you think of them, they are motored by a desire not to abandon people to their sin but rescue them from it.
This genuinely beautiful book is an example of Francis as pastor. He knows people, he understands people, he wants to stand with the people. When he’s compared to the political populists of our time, it’s meant as a criticism, and it can be. But he also embodies the age’s understandable impatience with waffle and elitism. Francis cuts through to the heart of every matter.