'Secular People Love Him ... Because He's a Christian'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Catholic ex-blogger Andrew Sullivan discusses the mass appeal of Pope Francis during a ranging discussion with Bob Wright, author of The Evolution of God:

Watch the entire hour-long episode here. Or check out some of these smaller chunks:

Andrew wrote an essay a few years ago exploring the question, “What Is the Meaning of Pope Francis?” Money quote:


Since Francis’ introduction of a reproduction of [a painting called “Mary, Untier of Knots”] in Buenos Aires, it has grown in popularity in South America, with the faithful praying in front of it for Mary to “untie the knots” in their own lives. What strikes me about it is how undoing knots conveys a way of being in the world. It begins with a recognition that life isn’t easy, that a smooth and linear path is rarely given to us, that challenges keep presenting themselves. It is not so much the overcoming of these challenges that defines us, but the manner in which we tackle them.

It’s possible to get extremely frustrated by knots, after all, as I remember each time I retrieve a set of iPhone earbuds from the black hole of a coat pocket.

Your first thought is just anger: how on earth did this get so fucking tangled up? Your second impulse is to grab it and shake it or even to pull on it to resolve the issue in one stroke. But that only makes things worse. The knots get even tighter. In the end, you realize your only real option – against almost every fiber in your irate being – is to take each knot in turn, patiently and gently undo it, loosen a little, see what happens, and move on to the next. You will never know exactly when all the knots will resolve themselves – it can happen quite quickly after a while or seemingly never. But you do know that patience, and concern with the here and now, is the only way to “solve” the “problem.” You don’t look forward with a plan; you look down with a practice.

This has a relationship with the concept of “discernment” that is integral to Francis’ spiritual life, as it is to any Jesuit’s. A Christian life is about patience, about the present and about trust that God is there for us. It does not seek certainty or finality to life’s endless ordeals and puzzles. It seeks through prayer and action in the world to listen to God’s plan and follow its always-unfolding intimations.

Read the rest here. For more religious reflections from Andrew, check out this podcast he did with Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian, and this one he did with Richard Rodriguez, author of Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography. If you have any of your own reflections on Francis or religion in general, email hello@theatlantic.com and we’ll post them.