In Francis’ first homily as pope four years ago, he said, “Don’t be afraid to love. Don’t be afraid to be tender.” Can you imagine a simpler, more basic message than that? And from one of the world’s greatest leaders, whose Jesuit education alone marks him as an intellectual of high standing?
But the counsel he gave us in that short homily encourages us to believe that the power to transform our dangerously troubled world lies, not with the leaders of states and kingdoms, but with us. The world will change for the better, not by command of a president, a prince, or a parliament, but by the little acts and the little words of love and tenderness that we, the people, are capable of giving to others all day long, every day. Sounds too basic to be true, I know, but it is true. Jesus said so, Pope Francis said so.
It’s a cellular process – person to person — that Jesus himself very much believed in and practiced. I recall in that connection a funeral I presided over several years ago. It was for two sisters, Eileen and Jayne, siblings and also members of the same religious community, the Sisters of the Presentation. They had died together in a car crash. The younger one, Jayne, had sent me her written reflections on life, love, God, the Church – some of which I used at her funeral Mass. One of her ideas was that Jesus never intended to establish a new religion, a “church”, according to our understanding of the word. No, she wrote, Jesus simply started a person-to-person movement – one person influencing, touching, another with a word or a gesture of love – even a thought or a prayer. I quote from her now. She wrote —
Jesus began his mission with friendship, not only because it is powerful but also because it is hopeful. It is the key, the only key, that can unlock the door to a worthwhile future in love. Jesus saw the truth of that twenty centuries ago. Instead of organizing institutions, he started a movement based on friendship, on love. That is the only solution to the problems of the human heart. People can live together under almost any conditions if they are friends, if they are in love.
In our own time we have seen the murderous destruction that fanatical members of other religions have done, claiming that they were carrying out the will of God. But aren’t they doing what George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did — praying and then acting on the direction they feel they have been given?
No, absolutely not. Why? Because Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word.” Jesus situates his teachings about the Spirit in the context of love. In other words, the key — the lens — that reveals the true word of God to anyone is love. It is impossible that those whose hearts are filled with hatred and evil intentions toward others can recognize what God would have them do. Such persons are morally and spiritually blind. It is only when love is the primary driving force that anyone can discern and yield to the “will of God.” And only when love motivates can human beings enter into sincere dialog with one another and together make progress toward better life for all.
Don’t be afraid to love, Pope Francis says. Don’t be afraid to be tender.