WASHINGTON - Pope Francis continues to delight and surprise as he pursues his radical pilgrimage across the global psyche -- inspiring with his humility while also sending shock waves with his subversive spirit.
Yes, make no mistake, this humble man from Argentina who describes himself first as a sinner and prefers simplicity to the opulence afforded by his station is, like Jesus Christ himself, a radical.
He washes the feet of the poor while eschewing the ruby papal slippers for his own holy feet. He lives in humble quarters among colleagues rather than in the isolation of the Vatican suites where his predecessors have slept. He immerses himself in humanity while urging a greater pastoral role for the church and a de-emphasis on the harsh judgments of institutional authority.
In a world where greed and pride hold hands in the dark, Francis appears like a brilliant apparition of, say it, brother -- hope and change. He is a paradoxical mix of friend and foe wrapped in a happy package of tough love: friend of the poor, downtrodden and marginalized; foe of the purveyors of a status quo that worships money and throws away the young and old. He is, in other words, a problem for the world and poses special anxiety for pious politicians both inside and outside the church walls.
As such, he has a unique, transformative opportunity unseen in our time, not only for the Catholic Church, which could use a good purgative, but also for the larger world.
The anti-politician, he is fearless, provocative and willing to call out the weasels -- not so much by their names but by their actions. He has special criticism for globalization, which, he says, has created a culture in which the weakest suffer most and those on the fringes, the elderly and the young, "fall away." In such a money culture, "we throw away grandparents and we throw away young people."
In other, less orderly times, Francis would be hustled out of town on a donkey. In today's universal media world, word gets around and there's no hushing a brave man with a message millions long to hear. "Truth will out," goes the saying, but Francis gives truth a nudge at the door.
In a recent interview for the Jesuit publication America, the Vicar of Christ implored the church to not overemphasize those issues that social conservatives hold so dear. He didn't go so far as to suggest that the church change its core beliefs on subjects such as abortion and traditional marriage, but he urged a reordering of priorities and a less harsh approach. The hungry need food before they can hear a lecture about nutrition.
More love, less judgment is the seed he is planting, a worthy bumper sticker these days. In a judgmental era that sometimes rivals darker ages, Francis' words tumble into the human conversation like an uninvited guest. This humble, radiant man doesn't sprinkle rose petals and platitudes to amuse and beguile. He drops daisy cutters of truth and social justice smack into the punch bowl.
Talk about a splash. And all the while, he smiles.
But Francis says he doesn't wish to be known as the smiling "cordial manager of the church" who "comes here and says to you 'have courage,'" as he recently told a crowd of unemployed workers in Italy. Rather, he wants to be the brave one, the man who reaches deep inside his own well of humanness with all its frailties and limitations and finds the will "to do everything I can as a pastor and a man."
Telling the crowd to "fight for work," he said the economic system that created the "idol which is called money" is not a local problem but a "world choice."
In his short time at the Vatican, Francis also has tackled one of the worst scourges on the planet -- the explosion in human trafficking, including child labor, forced domestic work and prostitution. Not content to bemoan this sorry state of affairs, he has called on the Vatican to study the problem and, during a conference he has scheduled for November, develop an action plan.
In the parlance of the street that Francis seems to know better than most, he walks the walk. It is not his style to, if you'll pardon the expression, pontificate. His soul may be aimed for heaven, but his heart and feet are firmly planted in the earth.
May his roots bear fruit.