The President of the United States invoked the pope during his annual speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. It was not the first time, and it won't be the last. As a political matter, it makes sense. Pope Francis has become a pop-culture icon. But treating the pope like a celebrity misses the richness of the source of his joy and the implications of the proposal he embodies.
Much of what Pope Francis is most cited for -- particularly by politicians -- is his love for the poor. He urges us to go out to the periphery, to the very edge, and serve all who might otherwise be forgotten in a society that has become indifferent, a transactional, throwaway culture all too casual about the value of human life.
In his recent message celebrating the season of Lent, Pope Francis points to the redemptive generosity of God in "taking flesh and bearing our weaknesses and sins as an expression of God's infinite mercy to us." He writes: "What gives us true freedom, true salvation and true happiness is the compassion, tenderness and solidarity of his love." He continues: "Christ's poverty is the greatest treasure of all: Jesus' wealth is that of his boundless confidence in God the Father, his constant trust, his desire always and only to do the Father's will and give glory to him. Jesus is rich in the same way as a child who feels loved and who loves its parents, without doubting their love and tenderness for an instant."
That, as you may expect, is a revolutionary challenge missed by most media coverage.
Last year, Pope Francis and the pope emeritus, Benedict, appeared together -- their one public event. They consecrated the Holy See to St. Michael the archangel. The symbolism and the spiritual reality behind it were unmistakable. "Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the Devil" is one of the petitions of the traditional prayer asking for St. Michael's intercession.
Pope Francis is leading a revolutionary renewal at a time when our sense of purpose, belonging and direction are too often muddled or opaque, and he's doing so at a time when we lack the common vocabulary and experience to understand much of our religious and cultural imagery and history.