We are now over a hundred days into the Franciscan papacy, and it’s clear that people both within and outside the church see something about Francis which differs in appealing ways from what they have come to expect from the Catholic Church and its Supreme Pontiff.  This past week, even a blogger for esquire.com who self-identified as an atheist wrote that he had to admit that Pope Francis is “kind of awesome.”  While the approval of Esquire magazine—which is not exactly known for promoting the virtues of poverty, chastity, or obedience—may be a dubious endorsement, I think it does actually point to what may turn out to be a defining characteristic of this pope, and one of the reasons so many people find him so attractive.  While maintaining certain positions of the church that some find inhospitable—such as the exclusion of women from the priesthood or the rejection of same-sex marriage—Francis has managed to do so in a way that has made the Church seem less hostile and threatening to those who differ from it in these and other ways.  Much like Pope Benedict XVI was dubbed the “green pope” by some because of his attention to environmental issues, perhaps history will remember Francis as the Pope of Hospitality.

I am prompted to write this post by a recent story of 200 homeless people who the pope invited to dine at the Vatican and who were told by the cardinal who welcomed them that “this is your home, and [the pope] is pleased that you are here.”  Perhaps this shouldn’t be newsworthy, but I can’t help wondering when the last time such an event took place in Rome.  Despite Jesus’s continual attention to and identification with the poor, the way that the stories of Francis’s simple acts of washing the feet of prisoners or addressing a group of African refugees or rejecting the papal apartment so as to live closer to common folk garner such attention bears witness to the fact that the church has not always done such a good job of living out a spirit of poverty.

Yet it is not only the materially poor or socially marginalized that the pope greets with hospitality.  In a homily this past May, Pope Francis taught that those who approach the church should find doors open to meet the love of Jesus rather than people who want to control the faith.  He asks his listeners to

“Think of the good Christians, with good will, we think about the parish secretary, a secretary of the parish … ‘Good evening, good morning, the two of us – boyfriend and girlfriend – we want to get married’. And instead of saying, ‘That’s great!’. They say, ‘Oh, well, have a seat. If you want the Mass, it costs a lot … ‘. This, instead of receiving a good welcome- It is a good thing to get married! ‘- But instead they get this response:’ Do you have the certificate of baptism, all right … ‘. And they find a closed door. When this Christian and that Christian has the ability to open a door, thanking God for this fact of a new marriage … We are many times controllers of faith, instead of becoming facilitators of the faith of the people.

And ‘there is always a temptation – said the Pope – “try and take possession of the Lord.”

And he tells another story: “Think about a single mother who goes to church, in the parish and to the secretary she says: ‘I want my child baptized’. And then this Christian, this Christian says: ‘No, you cannot because you’re not married!’. But look, this girl who had the courage to carry her pregnancy and not to return her son to the sender, what is it? A closed door! This is not zeal! It is far from the Lord! It does not open doors! And so when we are on this street, have this attitude, we do not do good to people, the people, the People of God, but Jesus instituted the seven sacraments with this attitude and we are establishing the eighth: the sacrament of pastoral customs! “.

Not only in actions and teachings such as this, but also in the renewed signs of ecumenism and charity toward other faiths that we have seen in these early days of Francis’s papacy, a spirit of hospitality seems to inform the new pope’s modus operandi. I was moved when, at a recent conference, a theologian said with emotion that for the first time in her life, she feels like if the pope were to meet her and learn of her work, “he would like me.” As others have noted on this blog, hospitality is not without its detractors, and I am sure that there will be disappointments and even great failures during Francis’s papacy.  Yet these should not cause us to dismiss the steps he has taken to communicate to the world that though they may be strangers, the church does not see them as enemies.

As I have written elsewhere, however, hospitality does not mean erasing difference or diluting identity; in order for a welcome to be meaningful, it is important to be able to distinguish a particular community or place from what surrounds it (hopefully, such distinctiveness is manifest by a community’s particular sort of peace and joy and love, rather than by its extraordinary legalism).  While hospitality is confident enough in its own identity to be unthreatened by difference, it also “finds its definition in the story of the One in whose name we gather,” as Protestant theologian Letty Russell has written.  “If a community has no sense of its identity in Christ as the center of its life, it will not have a great deal of generosity or compassion to share with others . . . It is our identity in Christ who welcomes the stranger that leads us to join in the task of hospitality.”[1]  Such a view of hospitality seems to me to be deeply resonant with Francis’s approach; even in his now-famous comments inspired by the Gospel of Mark, he does not say that there is no difference between Christians and atheists or that Jesus’s message amounts to “be a good person,” but rather that the inclusive love and salvific hospitality of Christ is too great to be confined within human boundaries:

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class. We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all. And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much.

A “theology of the open door”?  For a church that has come to represent hostility, homophobia, and hypocrisy in the minds of many, this pope of hospitality may be just what is needed to bring new life.

[1] Letty Russell, “Practicing Hospitality in a Time of Backlash,” Theology Today 52.4 (Jan 1996), 483-484.