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I really suggest you read the Pope’s Wednesday audience about Mary, but I would like to reflect on a shorter speech he made the same day. His Holiness spoke to a group of prison chaplains in Italy. His words, I think, give us a glimpse into his heart as well as his gall bladder. These words show for whom the Pope feels compassion and, perhaps more intriguingly, they also show who gets under his skin.
Pope Francis reveals his personal knowledge of prison ministry and prison psychology. “You know that [for prisoners] one day it is all going well, but the next they can be down, and riding that wave is not easy. The Lord is close at hand, but tell them with gestures, with words, with your heart that the Lord doesn’t remain on the outside, He doesn’t stay outside their cell, He doesn’t stay outside the jail, but He is there inside with them.” He speaks of receiving letters from prisoners and his custom in Buenos Aires of visiting them and calling them on the phone. He continues this custom even now, he said, “especially on Sundays, to have a chat.”
His experiences with prisoners have made him reflect why he is out of jail and they are inside. “It does me good to think this: because the weaknesses we have are the same, why did he fall and I didn’t fall? This is a mystery for me which makes me pray and makes me come close to prisoners.”
He tells the prison chaplains to deliver this message as well: “You can tell them this: The Lord is inside with them; He too is one imprisoned, even today, imprisoned by our selfishness, by our systems, by so many injustices. Because it is easy to punish the weakest ones, but the big fish swim freely in the water.”
These words reveal a lot about Pope Francis’ thought. What is wrong with the world, in his mind, is not seen most clearly in the broken lives in prisons all over the world. They are a cause for mercy, more a symptom than the disease. What is really wrong is the selfishness in lives closed off from true concern for others that becomes institutionalized and systemic. The persons responsible for this have a lot to answer for.
Pope Francis is after the big fish. When someone who is supposed to look out for the needs of others and instead looks after himself, Pope Francis sees that as the antithesis of Christianity. His recent banishment of the bishop of Limburg is a case in point. His warnings against those who are pursuing ecclesiastical careerism, his sorrow at a “throw-away society” that doesn’t care about the poor, all stem from his overarching vision of Christ who came not to be served but to serve.
Pope Francis, like John Paul II before him, wants to start a revolution. As John Paul II condemned the inhumanity of communism, Pope Francis strongly condemns the inhumanity of consumerism. He wants to turn man inside out, from a self-seeking isolated individual to a person open to the needs of others in solidarity and service. He reaches out to the little fish who are harmed by the structures of sin and injustice. Even when they are not innocent themselves, they are still victims. But woe to those who create and perpetuate such structures of injustice.
The bishop’s crosier (a papal ferula in the case of the Pope) shepherds his lambs and defends them from wolves. Pope Francis is a fisher of men, and is not afraid to go after the sharks or the white whale of worldliness. Don’t be surprised to see him using his crosier as a harpoon.