By Matthew Kelly. Written for USA TODAY.
When the new pope stepped out onto the balcony on March 13, 2013, nobody could have imagined how this man in simple white vestments would capture the world’s attention. Before he proclaimed the traditional blessing on those gathered in St. Peter’s Square, he bowed his head and asked the people to pray for him.
This single gesture told the world that this Pope would not just be proclaiming the teachings of Jesus and his church. Here was a man eager to listen and ready to engage the whole world in a conversation that is both ancient and fresh.
Christianity has always been in conversation with the world. The focus and quality of this conversation has consistently influenced and often altered the direction of human history.
Over the past 50 years, an ever-increasing number of people have decided not to participate in this conversation. As they exit the conversation, they grow indifferent toward
Jesus, his church and Christian principles in general. This indifference is perhaps the greatest enemy Christianity faces in today’s modern secular world.
To the casual observer, it could seem that in an age of limitless communication and constant dialogue on every topic, the Catholic Church has become the last remaining monologue.
Pope Francis is changing that. He is re-energizing the conversation between Catholicism and the world. He is open to dialogue. He is inviting people to rejoin the conversation. As a result, hundreds of millions of people are now participating in the conversation for the first time or in a new way. This is a very good thing.
This conversation is important. It matters. Not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is the most effective way to draw all of God’s children closer. For this reason, this conversation cannot be about the church and its future, or its past. It has to be about the people the church exists to serve — their hopes and dreams, their fears and needs, their daily struggles, God’s dream for them, and the truth that will set them free. Evangelization at its core is a conversation that helps people seek and find deeply personal answers to their deeply personal questions.
What makes a great conversation? First and foremost, great conversations take time. They aren’t simply a quick exchange of ideas, and they cannot be rushed.
Great conversations are centered on great questions. Excellent teachers, priests, and doctors hone the art of asking penetrating questions that move a conversation in a positive direction.
Great conversations are constantly seeking deeper, more complete expressions of truth — the anchor upon which all great conversations rely to consistently move to deeper levels.
And in great conversations, everyone listens deeply — especially to those they disagree with.
Has Pope Francis begun a great conversation? That remains to be seen. Some think he has; some think quite the opposite. But no one can dispute that he has the world’s attention.
It is, however, important to note that Pope Francis is exploring this conversation on two fronts: with his words and actions.
The test of a true leader, and the test of a great spiritual leader, comes when the quest for truth and excellence demands that he or she lead people where they would rather not go.
People will abandon the conversation for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is a difference of opinion. Sometimes it is varying personal preferences. Often it is because the leader calls for a greater sacrifice than the follower is willing to make. Sometimes it is because the scars and bruises of life prevent us from seeing the truth, and at other times it is because our egos prevent us from accepting what is true.
We may on the other hand be mistaken in thinking that this is a conversation at all. Perhaps it is simply an excuse for some people only concerned with personal agendas to advance their cause regardless of the cost to others and to the oldest institution in the world — the Catholic Church.
The question that swirls around Pope Francis wherever he goes is: Where is the conversation going? Has he started a great conversation? It is simply too early to tell, and it won’t be easy.
Jesus wasn’t afraid of difficult conversations; nor should we be. And in those difficult conversations, I cannot imagine Jesus being arrogant and indignant, but gentle and humble — and, above all, interested in the people he was speaking with, not to or at.
A great conversation depends on the virtue of all involved. So in our culture where patience and generosity, fortitude and justice have become endangered species, can we gather together and muster enough virtue for one more great conversation?
One thing is certain: Our times need a great conversation.
This article was written by Matthew at the invitation of the editorial team at USATODAY and first appeared in a Special Edition of USA TODAY in 2015 in celebration of the new Pope.