Since the surprising election of the new pope back in March I have been impressed. I have shared several articles about what he's saying and doing on Facebook. The response to my posts has been both positive and negative. Through some of this social media interaction many of my Roman Catholic, Protestant, and even Atheistic friends have expressed some of my same delights. The negative responses, however, have been puzzling to me.Most common, especially by my American (mostly Texan) friends, has been a sentiment of apathy. One said 'Why do you care about who the Pope is? Why should I give a damn?' This sentiment is often coupled with 'The Pope has no say over my life.'
Well, here's five reasons why I care about what our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers are going through in this incredible time of transition; and why you, protestant, atheist or other, should give a damn too.
1) The Pope is probably the most influential religious leader in the world. Over 1/7th of the world's population (1.2 billion) look to the Pope for spiritual direction, guidance, and governance. This is over half of the world's Christians. Whether or not you call yourself a Christian, it is easy to see how widely this bishop's influence reaches, especially as the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) has exploded in South America, Africa, and East Asia in the last century.
The Pope is certainly not influential in the way your local pastor is in your life. This is, of course, true even for Roman Catholics. However, the inherent power, oversight, spokesmanship, and ideological steering effect every corner of the Roman Catholic world, and thus the entire planet.
2) This dude is oh so different than any other pope before him.
- Pope Francis is the first South American Pope, the first of any American kind.
- He is the first from the Southern Hemisphere.
- He is the first modern pope to be from a place that still deals with 3rd world poverty on a wide spread scale.
- He has rejected many of the garish excesses often employed by the Papacy
- He's the first in over a millennia to take over after a Pope resigned
- He is the first elected from a Jesuit order (which is pretty significant)
All of this leads to the impression that the guy is not part of the establishment in a way that the other (mostly European) Popes have been. One commentator said that they elected a 'foot soldier' to lead them.
The installation of his predecessor, Benedict XVI at such an old age implied to many that he was merely a conservative placeholder until a Pope for the modern world could be selected. Especially following his almost unprecedented resignation, Benedict was clearly not intended to be the long-term successor to the incredibly progressive and popular John Paul II. At some level, it seems the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic world was waiting for Francis.
3) He is opening the door to the rest of the world. Since his installment in March Francis has pissed off Catholics and endeared himself to many outside of the religious fortress of the Vatican City.
- He washed the feet of a woman, something traditional Catholics are very uncomfortable with.
- Not only that, but he also washed the feet of a Muslim... girl!?! Zing!
- He is avidly leading the worldwide church in concern for the poor. And while care for the poor is something the RCC has traditionally done pretty well, Francis is ardently working on their behalf in his first three months as Pope.
- He speaks off the cuff, often saying things that the religious establishment aren't comfortable with. Does this sound like someone we've heard from before?
- He sought to build a bridge with other faith traditions, and even to atheists who share their similar values and who are doing the 'work of God'.
4) He is openly critical of the RCC, yet faithful to it. With his immediate rejection of the flashy Papal clothes and digs he has been critical of the RCC status-quo from day one. Since then he has also openly spoke out against his own institution.
He has not been afraid to address the problem of molestation that has been rampant in the Western church. Whether anything comes from his talk, we shall wait and see.
He spoke out against the RCC's fiscal excess and material hoarding calling the church to a 'heart of poverty', not exactly synonimous with the Roman Catholic Church we've all come to love and hate. He also called on global leaders and Catholics world wide to slow the roll of the global capitalist machine that grows at the expense the poor.
In some of his most interesting and controversial stuff to date he insisted that God is still working through those who aren't Roman Catholic when they do good works, even atheists. “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much..."
Of course many take this to mean he's saying that atheists are going to heaven, and the Vatican was quick to dispel that notion (despite the incredible ecumenical discussion that followed). As so often happens in Christian debates the question of who's going to heaven and who's going to hell is not really the right one here. That wasn't what Francis was talking about. The point I'm trying to make with this quote is that his words include both sides of an intramural debate, one he's probably participated for his entire professional life.
He's got a bone to pick.
5) The Roman Catholic Church is a whore, but she's our mother. Anyone who's had to take any church history knows that if it weren't for the Roman Catholic Church we very well might not still be doing this whole "Christian" thing (with apologies to my Eastern Orthodox friends). For a lot of history the Roman Catholic Church was the Church.
To anyone who calls themself a Christian in the West, we can not separate our faith lineage from that of our Roman Catholic friends any more than I can remove myself from the American legacy of baseball, apple pie, genocide, slavery, and drone strikes.
At the churches I work at, our gatherings are flush with ancient prayers and liturgical elements, much of it Roman Catholic in origin. The very scriptures we use are both a precursor to and a byproduct of God's church, which was then largely collected, preserved, and protected by our friends in Rome. There is only one holy and catholic (little 'c') Church, and the Roman Catholic brand has always been its majority.
“As to the Church, where else shall we go, except to the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.” - Dorithy Day
To those of you who don't call yourself a Christian, it is impossible to deny the role of the RCC in the development of the Western Hemisphere. We are all influenced to our core by the Judeo Christian influence upon our thought, life, and communal practices. This has, of course, been both good and bad.
THEREFORE If you often read books by names like Mark Dricsoll, Rick Warren, Greg Boyd, or Bono; if you check in with news commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Jon Stewart, or Rachel Maddow, I suggest you keep an ear to the ground for what's going on with ol' Francis in Vatican City.
We all know that there's plenty of reasons to be critical of the RCC. My point today is that there is now, perhaps for the first time in my lifetime, a reason to be excited as well. Change is a bitch, especially for the one of the oldest organizations in human history. I will join with my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters to pray, converse, and see what direction, if any, this new rudder can exert upon Christianity's biggest ship.