Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
From 1950 to 1967, CBS broadcasted the ever-popular show What’s My Line. It was the longest-running U.S. primetime network television game show ever. Each week, four celebrity panelists would question contestants in order to guess their occupation. The show hosted a wide range of individuals, from actors to politicians, from ordinary people to more famous ones.
Among those to challenge the panelists were some whose profession and work were well known, e.g. Julie Andrews, Carol Burnett, Milton Berle, Conrad Hilton, Betty White, Jimmy Carter and Walt Disney. But, then, there were others with the most obscure and unusual occupations. There was the man who made eyeglasses for chickens so that they could look down to eat, but not up to peck at each other. Then, there was the lady who made false tails for thinly-tailed show horses. This guessing game fascinated viewers who were drawn into the effort to guess the contestant’s true identity.
Today, the media has become fascinated with Pope Francis. They are addicted to the “guessing game” of figuring him out. His actions and words seem to say to them, “What’s My Line?” Some say it’s about reshaping the Church? Others, translating the Church’s Tradition into contemporary language? Some flag the pope as the world’s pastor unconcerned with doctrinal niceties. Others, as the guardian of the Church’s unchanging faith.
A mere listing of the Pope’s words and actions might seem to provide clues to answer the guessing game. But the clues are inconclusive, especially to the casual observer. Repeatedly, the Pope has spoken about marriage as an indissoluble union of a man and woman. Yet, his often quoted retort “Who am I to judge?” makes some imagine he has bought into the sexual upheaval of our day. During his recent trip, in the very same building, the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C., he met briefly with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk opposing gay marriages and also had a 15- to 20-minute meeting with his openly gay former student Yayo Grassi along with his partner of 19 years.
Six months into his papacy, he shocked the pro-life movement by saying that the Church was obsessed with abortion and contraception. On the one hand, he labeled the option of not having children “a selfish choice” and encouraged families to have children. On the other hand, in an off-the-cuff remark, he seemed to disparage large families by saying Catholics should not multiply “like rabbits.”
A comprehensive look at Pope Francis can easily clarify his work and his identity. Confronting what he calls the “throwaway culture” of our times, the pope is reaching out to the most vulnerable, the marginalized, to those on the peripheries of society, to defenseless human beings, such as children, born and unborn, the disabled and the elderly. Yet, his remark that “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” has not stopped him from speaking out, nor has it stopped him from providing many an image of his warm embrace of everyone, no matter what the externals of their lives.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis clearly teaches that “Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems.” He warns us that “Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be.” Wisely, he turns our view from reason alone to faith, when he says that “Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, ‘every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 213).
At the center of all his teaching and activity is one theme that repeats itself again and again, even in what seem to be contractionary statements and actions. The Holy Father is going out of his way, sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtly, to place at the center of our attention the dignity of the human person. He is asking us to look deeper and longer at each other, past the behaviors and lifestyles, to the individual created in the image and likeness of God, loved by God and called to share in the redemption offered by Christ. It is this vision that will truly usher in a culture of life.
Truly listening to Pope Francis and watching him in action give enough clues to recognize his true identity. No need of engaging in the What’s My Line guessing game.