Pope Francis, the Cross, and God’s Mercy


By Joshua Sauppe, UW Graduate Student

Last month we celebrated the first anniversary of the pontificate of Pope Francis. In little more than a year, the Holy Father has certainly taken the world by storm, even going so far as to be named TIME Magazine‘s Person of the Year. As Catholics, we should only see this as a good thing. Jesus called on us to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” [Matthew 28:19, The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition] and the amount of media coverage of the Pope and Catholicism can certainly help in bringing the Gospel message to the world.

However, it can also be a double-edged sword, especially in the age of the Internet, where we are constantly bombarded with information from every direction. Often we can only process headlines and don’t have the time to dig deeper into individual articles. This information overload can understandably result in quite a bit of confusion about certain issues. The risk of confusion is greatly increased when reading news about the Pope and the Church, especially since the headlines are written by a media that does not necessarily understand Catholicism.

Consider a headline from The New York Times concerning Pope Francis and the Church: “Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion, and Birth Control.” [1] The headline seems to suggest that the Pope is calling for the Church to change or relax its doctrine on these issues, to get with the times so to speak. Are we to think that the Pope is calling for major doctrinal changes with these comments? The answer is an emphatic “no”, as the article appreciably goes on to ultimately clarify: “The [P]ope’s interview did not change [C]hurch doctrine or policies…” [1] Unfortunately headlines like this can cause quite a bit of confusion for Catholics trying to understand the direction that our Holy Father wishes to take us. As Bishop Morlino said in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal: “[T]here’s been so much innuendo about what he wants in the mass media, that I think many Catholic people are confused, and I feel badly about that. But that’s not his fault.” [2]

Bishop Morlino says the reason for these headlines is that “[t]he mass media are trying to create a spirit of Pope Francis, just as they created a spirit of Vatican II.” [2] This spirit of Pope Francis embraces all of the things that are easy to like about Christianity (helping the poor, turning the other cheek, etc.) without any of the difficult teachings of Christianity (sexual morals, suffering, etc.). In short, some in the mass media are attempting to use Pope Francis’ words to create a Christianity without the cross. They are to be commended for recognizing the good in Christianity, but they fail to recognize that without the cross, Christianity is lacking its most important element. The cross is the most perfect realization of God’s profound love for the world.

We need only look to Our Lord to understand the importance of the cross. He certainly could have saved Himself from the agony of the cross if He desired, but He wished to do His Father’s will. “And going a little farther He fell on His face and prayed, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.’” [Matthew 26:39] Jesus did not forsake the cross, and neither should we. To be a Christian is to embrace the cross, as He commanded: “Then Jesus told His disciples, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” [Matthew 16:24] Bishop Morlino adds, “[I]t’s not my place, and it’s not Pope Francis’ place, either, to try to take the cross away by what we say.” [2] The immense love that God has for each one of us is most perfectly realized in the ultimate sacrifice that Christ made upon the cross. The crosses that we have been given in this life only make sense when we realize and accept this love.

Bishop Morlino goes on to explain why he thinks Pope Francis is saying the things he does. The Holy Father sees a Church that has for some time been falsely portrayed as only caring about culture wars, especially abortion, homosexuality, and contraception. She is seen as a nagging mother instead of a loving mother. Pope Francis wishes to refocus the media coverage of the Church on the heart of the Gospel message: love of God and love of neighbor. [Matthew 22:36-40] As he said in his apostolic exhortation, he doesn’t want the Church to be merely a multitude of doctrines passed down and rigidly imposed from generation to generation. [3] He wants people to meet Jesus Christ, the whole Jesus Christ, not just one obsessed with doctrine.

The Holy Father so desires for people to meet Jesus Christ that he is making every effort to remove any obstacles that might be in the way of that meeting. The Church’s false characterization as being obsessed with doctrine is one such fairly large obstacle. If people see a Church that only appears concerned with doctrine about which they may disagree, they will not bother to come to Her for healing. Pope Francis sees the Church as a field hospital after battle treating the critical wounds of this world. As he says, “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” [1]

If someone had been in a bad car accident, he would not go somewhere that he thought only treated cases of pneumonia. He would instead go to an emergency room. In a similar way, because the Church is wrongly perceived to only treat certain ills (i.e. obsessed with enforcing certain doctrines), some may not come to Her for treatment. Pope Francis seeks to change that. He wants to highlight that the Church is a place where all can come for healing, not just a few. The Holy Father wants us all to go out to the world and bring back those who do need healing, just as combat medics go out to the front lines and bring back wounded soldiers.

Pope Francis recognizes that the cross only makes sense with the love of Christ. In the absence of that love, the cross can appear quite ugly. To this end, he is trying to refocus the Church on the love that Jesus Christ offers to the world. He wishes for people to meet Jesus and see the love that He has for them. Once the world understands and accepts that love, the cross will be seen as the object of true beauty that it is.

As we celebrate the Easter season, let us remember the love and mercy that Christ showed for us by embracing His cross, even to the point of death, for the forgiveness of our sins. Let us seek to embrace the crosses that we have been given and so reciprocate that love for Jesus. It is only in this way that we can grow closer to Christ. Further, let us respond to the wishes of the Holy Father and go out to the front lines to rescue those who are in such desperate need of the healing that only Christ can give.

Ad majorem Dei gloriam


[1] Goodstein, Laurie. “Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control.” The New York Times. September 19, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/20/world/europe/pope-bluntly-faults-churchs-focus-on-gays-and-abortion.html?_r=0
[2] “Full transcript of interview with Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino.” Wisconsin State Journal. March 9, 2014. http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/full-transcript-of-interview-with-madison-catholic-bishop-robert-morlino/article_6c041140-ab9f-5ea9-a22c-62185d1da013.html
[3] Francis. Apostolic Exhortation. Evangelii Gaudium. November 24, 2013.