By Matthew Kelly. Written for USA TODAY
What is it about Pope Francis? The question has been swirling around ever since he was elected on that fateful day on March 13, 2013. Some people say it is his love for the poor, others that it is his willingness to explore different points of view, and others yet, claim that it is his desire to reform.
Pope Francis has captured the attention of the people of our time. He has engaged them in a conversation about faith and life. Many if them are disengaged Catholics, and a surprising number are not Catholic at all. This conversation is a good thing unto itself.
Yes, his willingness to explore different points of view has led many who would have previously excluded themselves from this conversation. And yes, some people would like to use his openness to dialogue to push their own agendas, that are often just personal preference and sometimes outside of and opposed to what it truly means to be Catholic.
But there are two things about Francis that are mesmerizing. First, in a world of shallow, superficial, deceptive, self-interested leadership, he is a model of the authentic leader. He is willing to make sacrifices. He has the heart if a servant And he acknowledges his humanity and imperfections by making himself disarmingly vulnerable.
The second mesmerizing things about Pope Francis is so disarmingly simple that we have over looked it for far too long: he makes people feel good about being Catholic. Highly engaged Catholics feel good about being Catholic. Disengaged Catholics do not. There is a direct relationship between how we feel about Catholicism and our level of engagement.
Throughout the disclosure of the sexual abuse crisis that plagued the Church for too long, it became clear that our leadership at the highest levels was at best incompetent and at worst corrupted. Case after case demonstrated that concern for the institution of the Church was constantly put ahead of the people the Church was meant to serve. All this left even the most committed Catholics with more than just a sour taste in their mouth, caused millions of moderately engaged Catholics to leave the Church, and changed en masse how Catholics feel about the Church. In short, it robbed people of their good feelings about being Catholic, and, much more significantly, destroyed the faith of millions.
We spent a billion dollars settling law suits, but nothing to rally the faithful and remind them that while this was a very dark moment in the history of Catholicism the overwhelming theme of our story as Catholics is one of life-altering contribution in every community for Catholics and non-Catholics. We did nothing to make Catholics feel good about being Catholic again. And this is the first step in rebuilding the Catholic Church in America, and around the world.
Pope Francis filled the void. He made people feel good about being Catholic again, made them proud to be Catholic - and that is not small thing. In fact, without this the Church cannot effectively fulfill it’s mission in any society. This is why so many parishes and dioceses are stuck in maintenance mode, rather than passionately living out their mission.
It’s a lesson for the Church in our age: Before you can teach people, lead people, catechize people, or mobilize people, you must first make them feel good about being Catholic. But we don’t talk about it. In many circles, if you proposed the idea of deploying resources in a campaign to make people feel good about being Catholic, you would be viewed as soft, strange, weak, and perhaps worse. It is thought of as something that is beneath us.
I know we don’t want “feel good” Catholics, we want life-long disciples. But the thing is, life-long disciples feel good about being Catholic. It is essential, but we don’t talk about it, and we certainly don’t have a strategy to bring it about. Until we inspire people to feel good about being Catholic again all our other efforts will be thwarted, all our energies will be wasted.
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 2013 in celebration of the new Pope.