Like his patron, St. Francis, Pope Francis keeps the poor and vulnerable before our eyes, even going so far as to install showers at St. Peter’s Basilica for the poor and homeless.
And when he came to Assisi in 2013, Pope Francis went first to a church-run center for physically challenged children and spent 45 minutes personally greeting them, and saying to them and their caregivers, “We are among the wounds of Jesus. Jesus is hidden in these young people. We treat the wounds of Jesus here.”
That awareness of those who suffer, that compassion, is why people run after Pope Francis, and why they ran after St. Francis. It is why a little boy ran onto the stage in St. Peter’s Square and clung to the leg of Pope Francis. The boy felt drawn to this grandfatherly man who, like Jesus, welcomes little children and blesses them.
Nor is Pope Francis simply a saintly-but-sentimental man; for he also challenges us and reminds us of the dangers of our materialism. Those can create a culture of comfort that makes us think only of ourselves, a culture of waste that seizes God’s gifts only to savor them briefly and then discard them, a culture of indifference that desensitizes us to the suffering of others.
Pope Francis reminds us that the Church itself can get caught up in this kind of materialism. In Assisi, in the room where St. Francis stripped himself of his material goods, the pope said, “Many of you have been stripped by this savage world, which doesn’t provide work, which doesn’t help, to which it makes no difference that children die of hunger.” Then he added, “This is a good occasion to invite the Church itself to strip itself.”
The focus of Pope Francis on poverty and materialism has been inspiring. He has not let up on that message he delivered in Assisi. He gave a clear warning to the Vatican Curia last December, listing the dangers that positions of power can bring. It was an indication of the changes that are under way—bringing the Church away from temptation, into Christ-like action.
Compassion and the challenge of the Gospel: that is why people run after Pope Francis.
Murray Bodo, OFM, is a popular author and poet. His new book is Enter Assisi: An Invitation to Franciscan Spirituality (Franciscan Media).