I was speaking recently with a friend of mine, a consecrated layperson living a vocation of celibacy, about the Pope’s visit to America and Cuba last September. Though I did not get to see Francis’ face without the mediation of a jumbotron (and yet I was merely a block away from him!), I felt a deep sense of intimacy with the Pope. The “Francis effect,” or the phenomenon of being moved by Francis’ piercing awareness of the value of human life that is evident when watching his encounters with the “blessed ones”-the poor and suffering, seems to profoundly impact people who have seen him in action, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This attraction has generated a great desire in me to know more and more about this man. What is this attraction, this awe, in front of a man who I’ve never met before and doesn’t even know that I exist? Perhaps this is the effect of holiness, which characterized the same mysterious presence that people sensed when they first encountered Jesus. My friend advised me to “stay close” to Francis because he is probably my truest friend.
At the risk of sounding delusional or mentally unstable, I have come to see that the Pope is probably my closest, that is my most intimate, friend at this point in my life. Yes, a man who I have only seen through a screen, whose homeland and current state of residence are far from my own, and who certainly has not heard my name before, is indeed my “bestie.” Such an assertion may be difficult to comprehend given the commonly accepted conception of friendship in our culture today. But entering more deeply into the tradition and theology of Christian friendship will reveal that such a claim can be valid.
Aquinas’ account of friendship reveals the roots of the ideal of detachment in Christian friendship. He begins in his treatment on Charity (IIaIIae q 23) by looking at the friendship that God extends to man, which is expressed through caritas, an unconditional and disinterested desire for the good of the other. It would not be possible for God to call man His friend without His communication of self through the Incarnation. The face of God becomes intelligible to man through an encounter with Christ. When one loves his friend with caritas, not only does he love him for his own sake, but he also loves “all that belongs to him.” Thus to love God is to love all of his children, including strangers and one’s enemies, because even they belong to God. He continues in question 26 to affirm that the object or goal of each friendship is the Good, whose totality can only be found in God. Because the fullness of the goal of friendship resides in God Himself, it is possible for friendship to exist amongst all of God’s children, including enemies and strangers.
A contemporary theologian, Monsignor Luigi Giussani, continues to trace the thread of the dimension of detachment which gives form to the theology of friendship in the Christian tradition. He locates the defining factors of friendship in said detachment and in the desire for the other person’s good, or as he says, in a “mutual accompaniment toward Destiny.” Because God’s love for each human being implies a particular intention and task to be fulfilled in their life (vocation), to love one’s friend is to love her “destiny.” Recalling Aquinas in question 26, the fullness of the Good can only be found in God, thus to be a friend implies that one must accompany his friend on her path toward her vocation which has been determined for her by God. Our intimacy as friends is predicated upon the extent to which we realize God’s plan for our lives. The more I adhere to God’s plan for myself and assist my friend in his journey to discovering God’s plan for him, the more deeply we are united to each other. Giussani claims that the true measure of Christian relationships, whether in friendship or marriage, is the “dimension of virginity,” that is the obedience to God’s plan for the other over “my plan” for him. All Christians are called to live virginity in the sense that they must sacrifice their idea of who “the other” is and receive them as they truly are, according to their God-given identity. They are also called to renounce the inclination to selfishly possess the other person for the sake of utility and pleasure. Only through conformity to He who is the source of integrated Goodness can human persons live in true unity with each other.
Msgr. Giussani with his friend, Pope St. John Paul II
What then, does friendship entail, if not merely spending hours together sharing common interests, chuckling over a treasury of inside jokes, and knowing every detail of their personal lives? The Christian tradition of friendship begins to diverge from the contemporary notion of friendship as a self-indulgent relationship of mutual use and pleasuring when we recognize that true unity and intimacy can only be realized when properly proportioned to the totality of Goodness, who is God Himself. While time spent together, secrets, and inside jokes may make up a part of friendship, they are only true expressions of the relationship when they manifest as part of the path in which the friends “mutually accompany” each other toward the realization of each other’s vocation. These gestures only discover their fullness when they occur within the context of a journey of toward unmasking the face of He who has determined my Destiny-and is illumined by the light of prayer and reception of the Eucharist.
So is it truly possible for Pope Francis to be my best friend, not merely as a “friend-in-my-head?” Well, I know for a fact that we both pray for each other, we enter into deeper intimacy in our reception of the Eucharist, and he surely does accompany me on my path toward realizing my vocation through counsel and encouragement. And I can safely say that Christ makes His face intelligible through the face of Pope Francis (even if only through the screen of a jumbotron). While I lament the fact that we probably won’t be able to share juicy texts with each other and go for drinks together on the weekends, I look forward to doing so with Him on the other side of the Kingdom. For now, I’ll be with you at Mass, buddy.