American author, historian, and journalist James Carroll has written a lyrical, challenging and deeply thoughtful piece in the New York Times on “Jesus and the Modern Man.”

Carroll begins by pondering the impact Pope Francis is having on his church and the unease the new Pope’s charismatic presence is causing for many within the church. Carroll writes,

The more universal the appeal of his spacious witness, the more cramped and afraid most of his colleagues in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church have come to seem.

James Carroll is not a cranky contrarian critic of the church. He is a devout Roman Catholic who continues as a faithful worshiping member of his church. But, for all his commitment to his church, Carroll is not afraid to ask the troubling question that must be faced,

It is easy to love Pope Francis for his resounding defense of the poor, his simplicity, his evident large heart. But the moral grandeur of his personal triumph throws into stark relief the continuing pettiness of the institution over which he presides, a pettiness that inevitably seeks to impose itself on him. What magic, actually, can Francis’s singular magnanimity work on the church’s iron triangle of bureaucracy, dogma and male power?

Carroll’s questions get harder and more challenging as he ponders the institutional life of his church, until he is driven to wonder why he stays at all with this stumbling embodiment of faith.

No one cares whether one bent man in a back pew, like me, throws in the altar cloth at last, but the religious disenchantment of the secular age puts the question even more broadly: Why the church at all? Yet as soon as the voice in my head forces the question, I know the answer, although it’s hard to explain.

Carroll’s answer is both simple and profound. It is the person of Jesus that holds Carroll in his church. Particularly it is the awareness that in a unique and powerful way, Carroll continues to encounter Jesus at the table when he comes to mass. Carroll explains,

All dogmas, ordinances and accretions of tradition must be measured against the example of the man who, acting wholly as a son of Israel, eschewed power, exuded kindness, pointed to one whom he called Father, and invited those bent over in the shadowy back to come forward to his table.

It was the table, I suddenly recall, that brought me here in the first place.

Christian faith is not primarily about getting our dogma right. It is not about perfect priests who never make mistakes and always fulfill the needs of the faithful. Christian faith does not require a smoothly running institution. Christian faith does not require perfect churches where no one is ever made to feel uncomfortable.

The truth is, every institutional embodiment of faith is filled with failures. A community of failures is the only community that would ever have room for me.There is room for each of us in this confused, imperfect institution we call church. No one is excluded. Every failure is invited to the table. We are called to bring all our brokenness to the table and lay it down before Jesus.

We may have to choke back some distaste about the nature of the church. We may find that the people in charge do not measure up perfectly to our expectations. We may find ourselves kneeling or standing at the table next to a person we find disagreeable. But we know that it is at this table with these people that we encounter Jesus in a deep and profound way. It is this encounter with Jesus, not the institutional life of the church or priesthood, or the perfect lives of our fellow worshipers, that is the centre of our faith and life in Christ.

So, despite all his struggles with his church, James Carroll keeps coming back. He remains faithful to the presence he finds at the table. He continues to heed the call of that presence and to open his heart in the eucharist to the deep mystery of love that transcends all the broken reality of the human condition. If this is the effect Pope Francis is having on his church, the whole Christian family should rejoice with grateful hearts.