I was reminiscing recently with a friend of mine, a consecrated layperson living the vocation of virginity, about Pope Francis’s visit to New York City in September 2015. Although I got within a mere city block of the Holy Father, I did not get to see his face except through a jumbotron. Nevertheless, I felt deeply connected to him—so much so that my friend advised me to “stay close” to Francis because he is probably my truest friend.
What is this attraction–this awe–in relation to a man whom I’ve never met and who doesn’t even know that I exist? I’d dare liken it to the mysterious effect that Jesus had on the disciples when they first encountered him. In any event, I’ve been moved since the beginning of Francis’s papacy by his piercing awareness of the value of human life, which is most evident in his encounters with the poor and suffering.
This “Francis Effect” has an impact on many who watch him in action, both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In my case, at the behest of my consecrated friend, I have come to understand this effect in terms of friendship. In other words, at the risk of sounding delusional, I consider the Pope to be my best friend. Yes, a man whom I have only seen through a screen, whose homeland and current residence are far from my own, and who certainly has not heard my name before, is my most intimate friend.
This may be difficult to comprehend given the common understanding of friendship in our culture today, but it falls within the tradition and theology of Christian friendship. In his treatment on charity in the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas begins by looking at the friendship that God extends to man as it is expressed through caritas, an unconditional and disinterested desire for the good of the other. It would not be possible for God to call man His friend without His communication of self through the Incarnation. The face of God becomes intelligible to us through an encounter with Christ. When one loves his friend with caritas, not only does he love him for his own sake, but he also loves “all that belongs to him.” To love God is to love all people, even strangers and enemies, because as his children they belong to God.
Monsignor Luigi Giussani, a 20th century theologian, also highlights the importance of such disinterest in friendship. He uses the image of friends who accompany each other along the journey toward their “ultimate Destiny” to clarify how true friendship implies the desire for the other person’s good. The more I adhere to God’s plan for myself and assist my friend in his journey to discovering God’s plan, the more deeply we are united to each other. Giussani says that the true measure of Christian relationship is obedience to God’s plan for the other over “my plan” for him. All Christians are called to sacrifice their idea of who “the other” is and receive them as they truly are. They are also called to renounce the selfish inclination to possess others for the sake of utility or pleasure. Only through conformity to the ultimate Good—God—can human persons live in unity with each other.
This is where the Christian tradition of friendship diverges from the contemporary notion of friendship. While spending time together, sharing common interests, chuckling over inside jokes, and knowing details of one another’s lives can be part of friendship, they are secondary to the goal of “mutually accompanying” each other toward the realization of God’s plan.
So, is it possible for Pope Francis to be my best friend? Well, I know that we both pray for each other, that we enter into intimacy in our reception of the Eucharist, and that he accompanies me on my path toward realizing my vocation through his preaching and his witness. Especially in his pandemic-era homilies, Pope Francis helped me to recognize Christ’s presence in the midst of challenging circumstances and to use the time in quarantine to grow in deeper intimacy with Christ. In particular, watching Francis kiss Christ’s feet on the “plague crucifix” in St. Peter’s Square reminded me of my need to approach Jesus as a beggar, unafraid of depending on him in my weakness.
Through Francis’s influence, I have discovered a newfound craving for healing in some of my broken relationships with others. Having extra time for reflection and prayer has brought to light the ways that I have hurt others, the ways that others have hurt me, and the ways that my burgeoning desire for full unity with Christ has begun to overpower my spitefulness and instinct to defend my past actions.
A year after the start of the quarantine, I can’t claim to have healed all of my broken friendships. But I can say that the memory of watching the Pope at Jesus’ feet and of him offering the Eucharist for the world, has strengthened my resolve to strive toward reconciliation.
My friendship with the Pope may be far from conventional, but the fruit it has borne in my life is undeniable. And while I lament the fact that we probably won’t ever be able to share texts with each other or get together for drinks on the weekends, I look forward to doing so with him on the other side of the Kingdom. For now, all I can say is, “I’ll be with you at Mass, buddy.”
Image Credit: Vatican News (screenshot)