A few words on the new pope.
Since ascending to the
papacy in March, the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio has managed to
surprise and impress the religious and irreligious alike by living a
brand of faith seldom seen on the public stage.
Pope Francis insists on
carrying his own bags, living in a simple apartment and cooking his own
supper. He has largely shunned the papal Mercedes-Benz in favor of a
5-year-old Ford Focus.
One of the earliest acts of his papacy was to
wash and kiss the feet of a dozen young prisoners, two of them girls, at
least one of them a Muslim.
But the pontiff’s appeal has not been
solely stylistic. It has also been a matter of substance.
after all, the pope who famously asked, “Who am I to judge?” gay people.
And who criticized Catholics as narrowly “obsessed” with abortion,
same-sex marriage and contraception. And who called his church to be
“for the poor.”
And who said God loves atheists, too.
the pope has not — yet — sought to change any bedrock teaching of
Still, his vision of a more compassionate and inclusive
church has won him rave reviews from across the cultural spectrum.
Thomas Groome, a theology professor at Boston University, called him “a
breath of fresh air.”
Columnist Michael Gerson described him approvingly
as a “disruptive force.”
Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” said, “I love
Chris Rock tweeted that “the new pope might be the greatest
It is a shower of unaccustomed approbation that should leave Christians, well … a little embarrassed.
— we — should ask what it tells us that a pope models humility,
inclusion, unpretentiousness, concern for the poor and nonjudgmental,
small “c” catholic love — and people are surprised. Indeed, it generates
headlines around the world.
What it should tell us is that people
are not used to seeing those virtues from people of faith. Their
praise, then, amounts to a stark indictment.
Let’s consider for a
moment the washing of the feet.
Though Francis broke with tradition by
including prisoners, women and non-Christians, the ritual itself is an
old one based in one of the more poignant incidents in the Bible.
book of John recounts how Jesus, in the hours before his crucifixion,
decides to teach his disciples one last lesson. He kneels before them
and washes their feet.
People call this an act of humility. If you
are a Christian, that word is not nearly strong enough for the idea of
God incarnate, the Creator of Creation, the Author of Everything, wiping
dirt and camel dung from the feet of these often dull-witted fishermen —
and then telling them explicitly that He is setting an example He wants
them to follow.
Take care of one another. Serve one another. And, for God’s sake, love one another.
is an example of selfless service — faith as obligation, not license —
that seems wholly alien to much of modern American Christianity.
when people speak of “faith,” it often means some pious politician
likening poor people to stray animals.
Or some Bible Belt town
organizing to keep the Muslims out.
Or some preacher preaching that he
prays for President Obama to die.
Or some pundit using God as his excuse
for condemning people by the millions based solely upon who and how
Small wonder Americans who seem increasingly disenchanted by
faith and polls, like the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey,
find the influence of organized religion to be waning.
see this new pope declaring the dignity of the poor, the inclusion of
the marginalized, the denial of self, the infinity of God’s compassion,
and people are surprised by this new thing.
But the very fact that
they are surprised speaks volumes.
Because isn’t that what faith was
supposed to be all along?