Pope Francis has asked his 7.14 million Twitter followers to pray for him as he lands in the United States for the first time Tuesday, and pray for him I will.
He’ll undoubtedly arrive to great joy among Catholics and other men and women of good will who admire him — particularly his much-vaunted humility (a paradox not of his making!) and the mercy that has become the watchword of his pontificate.
Yet, his trip will also assuredly offer him more than his fair share of opportunities to shoulder the Cross. Classless gestures, selective reporting and willful misunderstanding will hinder the reception of his message, even among those of us who wish to receive it with gratitude and to discern faithfully its application to our lives.
If Pope Francis’ previous reactions to such provocations are any indication, he’ll respond with purity, sincerity and spontaneity, winning many hearts and minds and confusing as many others. (That’s not to say, however, that his handlers won’t respond to those provocations with practical tactics, like disputing President Obama’s tasteless proposed guest list for the pope’s visit to the White House.)
In the end, what alternative, really, does Pope Francis have except to preach the Gospel to the best of his ability and to leave the rest to the Holy Spirit?
In the past, I’ve been frustrated with Papa Francesco for what I perceived as his “theological imprecision” and “lack of message discipline.” Truth be told, I’m even now trepidatious about his impending visit, about what he might say or do that will be enigmatic or misconstrued.
When dissenters and schismatics vocally wait for the pope to “change” Church teaching and when the media highlight every hint that Pope Francis somehow thinks differently than the popes he followed in the great unbroken line of apostolic succession, it can be tempting to doubt that the magisterium will, in fact, infallibly protect and defend the deposit of faith.
All of that, though — frustration, trepidation, doubt — is not of Christ. It’s also not of Christ to think the Holy Spirit depends upon the pope uttering only logical arguments and carefully crafted talking points in every interview he ever gives. The Holy Spirit makes use of talents for grammar, logic and rhetoric, certainly, but He doesn’t depend upon them.
Ultimately, the cleverest theologian on earth can’t outsmart the devil and the savviest media strategist can’t outwit him. Scripture tells us it’s “the shield of faith” that “quench(es) all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Eph 6:16), and faith reassures us that we need never fear that the Church will change Her teaching and thereby shake our confidence in Her authority.
Again: No matter what compassionate, pastoral or political statement the pope makes in the United States and no matter what the media (or, for that matter, this or that Cardinal) make of it, the Church will not change Her teaching — not on sin (including the oft-discussed sins of contraception, abortion, adultery or sodomy), not on its wages (death and eternal separation from the God who made and loves us), not on what is necessary (and freely offered!) for salvation and eternal happiness (Jesus and His Church).
Of course, it still doesn’t hurt to pray for Pope Francis. It also won’t hurt — in the wake of his visit — to read the most accurate transcripts of his speeches we can find. For that, the Vatican website is indispensable.