Last September, America magazine asked Jorge Mario Bergoglio to describe himself. We know him better as Pope Francis.
As the new spiritual father of the Roman Catholic Church—inaugurated March 13, 2013—Pope Francis had every opportunity to clarify his credentials, to point to his achievements and dreams, and to cast a vision for the future revitalization of the church. Instead, he answered the question in a surprising and deeply personal way.
“I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner…. Yes, perhaps I can say that I am a bit astute, that I can adapt to circumstances, but it is also true that I am a bit naïve. Yes, but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
Strange words indeed, to the ears of a culture that no longer uses the “s”-word. We generally prefer to see ourselves as hurt, wounded, broken, suffering, or marginalized. But do we see ourselves fundamentally as “sinners whom the Lord has looked upon”?
The very word—“sinner”—feels antiquated in our culture. In the same way that words like “holiness” and “righteousness” have slipped off the radar, so “sinner” feels too judgmental to use of others or even of ourselves. Many of us have grown up in a sensitive, entitlement generation. “Sinner” doesn’t belong in that language group.
But Pope Francis defines himself first in this way. Of course, he is merely emulating what the Apostle Paul said of himself, too: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). Earlier, Paul had written that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
What have we lost, spiritually, by defining ourselves more as victims than as rebels? Does our resistance to repentance stultify our spiritual growth? Are we spiritual babies because we fail to fully embrace the implications of being “a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon”?
Perhaps Pope Francis has reminded us not just of his own sin, but (helpfully) ours too. Paradoxically, the journey downwards is the journey upwards.