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By VALERIE SCHULTZ, Contributing columnist
He paid his own hotel bill in Rome last March, just after he became the pope. He washed the feet of prisoners for Holy Thursday. He wades into crowds to greet the faithful, and embraces children with no trace of awkwardness. He sits for long, frank interviews with the press. He recently celebrated his birthday with a bunch of homeless Italian men, one of whom brought his dog. Now Pope Francis has been named Time Magazine's Man of the Year: How could he not be? We Catholics love him like a rock star, and we sense that he loves us right back. Pope Francis has made us mindful of God's love for us, of our roots in the words and ministry of Jesus, and of our responsibility to be more Christ-like. He has restored to the first order of importance the redemptive love of the resurrection. Behind the scenes, but just as significant, he has been making gradual, necessary changes in both the structure and tone of the church. And he has done all of this in less that a year.
Thanks to Pope Francis, Catholic social justice teaching is almost sexy. The first Jesuit pope has done this in a Jesuit way, demonstrating a faith that is deep yet simple, brainy yet earthy, while managing to appear to be a regular person all along. If you are acquainted with any Jesuits, you know that's how they roll. Because of Pope Francis' photo ops and sound bites, the bullet points of social justice have practically become common knowledge. A refresher course for those of us who haven't gotten the message from news updates on the pope's daily behavior: Social justice principles include the belief in the dignity of the human person; the call to family, community and participation; the right to life and the responsibilities therein; the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable; the dignity of work and the rights of workers; global solidarity in the movements for justice and peace; and the care for God's creation. These are big orders to which Catholics often only pay lip service.
And here's the issue: While we Catholics are grateful that Pope Francis has put the Catholic Church front and center, and for once, not in a bad way, we are starting to squirm at his challenge for us in our own lives to follow the path he is mapping for us. We are made uneasy by his affable insistence that we roll up our sleeves and get to work.
It seems that Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day's mission to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" is one that Pope Francis expects his flock of faithful Catholics to undertake. In his eyes, we are all missionaries for the gospel message. The problem is that many of us are "the comfortable." We are content to put our envelopes in the collection basket each week. We write the occasional check to a worthy Catholic charity. We may even do a little volunteer work when it fits into our busy schedules. All of this makes us feel reasonably good about ourselves as decent people. But how often do we leave our comfort zones, either geographically or spiritually, and really put ourselves out to help someone we don't even know?
Speaking for myself, the answer is: not very often. I like my creature comforts. I like spending my paycheck in ways that benefit only my family. I like my down time. An awful lot of us find it easier to be a Sunday Catholic than to be, like Pope Francis, a "24/7" Catholic. Maybe we can't handle the truth. Pope Francis calls us to be "a poor church for the poor." He's taking that "preferential option" stuff seriously. Yikes: He may be some sort of revolutionary, intruding on the soft-cushioned lives we'd rather lead.
All this social justice talk has led to an outcry from certain quarters. In positing that Pope Francis may be a Marxist, some American pundits have actually reinforced the tenets of Catholic social justice. They have unwittingly educated the young, who tend to embrace the message and reject the hypocrisy of the church. They invite the questions: Was Jesus a Marxist? How about St. Francis of Assisi, whose name the pope has taken in promise to the poor? The pundits ask: How dare this pope mix politics and religion? Of course this question, asked with outrage, is weighed down by its own irony. Time's Man of the Year reminds us that a lived faith must address the political, that the world's downtrodden cry out for the very kingdom Jesus says is at hand, and that we are called to be the doers of social justice. All of which could make for some essential, soul-searching, totally uncomfortable New Year's resolutions.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.