At the end of a packed day on Sept. 5, Pope Francis quietly met with a group of two dozen Jesuits at the apostolic nunciature. He was cheered upon arrival, and he invited the small group to form a circle of chairs and begin the conversation by asking him some questions.
Father Leonardo Alexandria Simao asked simply, “How has your experience with God changed since you were elected pope?”
The account of the evening from Italian journalist Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro says that upon hearing the question, the pope “took a short time to reflect” before he responded.
“I can’t tell you, actually,” he said. “I mean, I guess my experience of God hasn’t fundamentally changed. I remain the same as before. Yes, I feel a sense of greater responsibility, no doubt. My prayer of intercession has become much wider than before. But even beforehand I lived the prayer of intercession and felt pastoral responsibility. I keep walking, but there’s not really been any radical change. I speak to the Lord as before. I feel God gives me the grace I need for the present time. … My election as pope did not convert me suddenly, so as to make me less sinful than before. … But the temptations are the same and so are the sins. The mere fact that I now dress all in white has not made me any less sinful or holier than before.”
The question itself struck me more than Pope Francis’ answer to it. It was short, simple and profound. Even Pope Francis was taken aback, as he stopped in the middle of his answer to admit that in his six years as pope, he had “never been asked this question before.”
And it made me think of my own spiritual journey. We often take an account of the meaningful things in our lives: our health, our finances, our careers, our families. But how often, truly, do we pause to take stock in our own spiritual lives? Have I formed good habits in my prayer life, or has the busyness of life caused me to regress in my relationship with God? Do I take the time to prayerfully read the word of God outside of Mass? Do I regularly accept the gift of God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Confession? Do I struggle with the same sins over and over? Do I practice what I preach to my children? Am I more compassionate to those in need? Do I nurture my relationship with the Mother of Our Lord? Do I follow through when I tell others that I will pray for them? Do I exude joy and mercy to the extent that others see Christ within me?
While I fall short of being satisfied with my answers, these questions aren’t meant to be guilt-inducing — for myself or anyone else. They are simply a means to intentionally reflect on how far we have come on our faith journey over a certain amount of time. Are we better disciples of Christ now than we were 10 years ago? Five years ago? Last month?
As he finished answering the question, Pope Francis said that reflecting on whether or not his relationship with God has changed over the past six years “helps me to understand that there is no magic in being elected pope. The conclave doesn’t work by magic.”
Growing closer to God, it seems, “doesn’t work by magic”; it is the product of small, daily decisions to serve his will more than my own. On good days I take two steps forward and one step back; on bad days I’m backpedaling quickly, tripping over myself and finding it difficult to get back on my feet. But over the course of recent years and months, I feel as though I’ve made progress, though it’s measured more by feet than by miles.
I have a ways to go. Most of us do. But if we don’t take the time to reflect on whether or not we’ve gone forward or backward in our relationship with Christ, chances are likely that we’ll be jogging in place as we strive toward the finish line.
Scott Warden is managing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.