There are a few people I follow in the sense that I want to hear and read whatever they are putting out there. My interest in these kinds of people does not parallel the people the general culture follows. For example, when I go through the checkout counter in the grocery store, I read with some amusement the cover of the various Hollywood-type magazines. I usually don’t even know the people about whom the magazine is putting forward. People are pregnant, getting dumped or duped or generally making a scene out of their lives and I don’t care. I just want to pay for the carrots!
I am not really interested in the sports stars upon whom our culture lavishes so much blabber. I don’t care about Tiger, LeBron or Michael. Certainly, they are accomplished in terms of a skill set for a particular sport. But that says nothing about the kind of human being they are. Many are stinking rich, but I know what most major religious traditions think about wealthy people who don’t share. The kinds of people I follow are different.
One of the people I like to follow is the Pope, Francis. Although I am not Catholic, I nevertheless am a follower of him. I admire what he stands for, what he is trying to do, and the spirit with which he engages things. It does not matter to me why he does it. In some ways he is pretty old…in his later seventies. But he has both a young and very mature spirit. Maybe it is because he is Argentinian or a Jesuit, I don’t know. I would like to think it is because he knows himself well, he has clarity about why God apparently chose him to lead the worldwide Catholic Church and he is going to give it his best shot while he has the passion, power and prestige of the Papal Office to make the world a better place.
One of the things I like about him is the early apostolic exhortation entitled Evangelii Gaudium (“Joy of the Gospel”). This writing was issued late 2013. It is meant to guide Catholics (and others, I would argue) to understanding Christian teaching and how to live it out. An apostolic exhortation usually focuses on one aspect, in this case, on the gospel of joy. When I first read the document, I was moved by some of the language and encouraged by the challenge the Pope offers each of us.
Let me give one example. In the following passage, Francis is offering a critique of contemporary culture that I think is accurate. If we understand the critique, then we can begin to figure out how to deal with the problem. Hear the words of Pope Francis. “The process of secularization tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal. Furthermore, by completely rejecting the transcendent, it has produced a growing deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism. These have led to a general sense of disorientation, especially in the periods of adolescence and young adulthood which are so vulnerable to change.”
Francis thinks our culture puts us all through a process of secularization. A process of secularization attempts to deny or mitigate any sense of the sacred. A secular person is one who simply denies there is anything sacred. In fact, that kind of person would not even believe in the possibility of the sacred. Or alternatively, the secular person might believe there could be some sense of the sacred, but the sacred is so minimal or marginal, it makes no difference. No person with any brains would spend two minutes seeking or relating to the sacred in any public way.
Hence Francis says the process of secularization limits faith to the private life. Following this, secularization begins to erode ethics. Without a sense of the sacred, ethics can also be privatized. When this happens, ethics can become more self-centered; self-interest reigns supreme. This can lead, finally, to a sense of disorientation.
I particularly like this point. I see a great deal of what Francis calls a “general sense of disorientation” in our world. I see it all the time in the college classroom. Students are busy, pressed to perform, and under pressure to succeed. But often, they are not even sure why they are doing it. They have little or no sense of orientation. They might have some sense of a purpose, i.e. to get a good job or make money, but they don’t have any meaning in their lives.
If ask about deeper questions of life, the disorientation colors their faces. They have not yet taken that class in college. They have not been given the answer. In a sense they might feel at a loss. But it is not their fault. They have succumbed to the process of secularization. They often don’t know it, but they have a general sense of disorientation.
I like the answer Francis offers. It is a gospel---good news. It is a gospel of joy. A good job and much money do not always deliver joy. As a follower of Francis, I also offer this gospel orientation. Orient yourself toward joy. Enjoy!