Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving for Pope Francis

            The recent decades were painful ones for the church in the United States.  The Roman Catholic Church endured wave after wave of humiliating sex abuse scandals. The response of the hierarchy was frequently breathtakingly incompetent, further eroding its authority with ordinary believers.  The Protestant mainline tore itself apart with vicious public battles over human sexuality and suffered from dwindling numbers, declining influence, and disappearing financial resources.  Evangelicals were politicized, allying themselves with some of the most retrograde movements in American political history.   Younger Evangelicals, disgusted by their elders’ evident contempt for the poor, support for a murderous, unnecessary war, and their enduring political, theological and social intransigence, left in droves.   The church as a whole endured the mockery of the so-called “new atheists” who blamed religion for the varieties of human misery.   The fanaticism of a murderous few was attached to the horrified and bewildered many.  The hope of the gospel seemed to be in increasingly short supply.

            For right-wing Catholics and conservative Evangelicals the world was turned into a battleground.  Life was a constant conflict between good and evil, right and wrong, us and them and neutrality was impossible.  Hierarchies, both official and self-appointed, were ever vigilant for deviance.  Departures from the party line were exposed and ruthlessly attacked.  Official sanctions were endured by some, public humiliation by others.  A dreary paranoia afflicted both the watchers and the watched.  Gloom, rather than hope and confidence, seemed the order of the day.  Our leaders told us we were under attack.  Grim faced and stern they called us to battle an implacable foe.  And scapegoats abounded: liberals, Muslims, Democrats, feminists, homosexuals, socialists, and so on.  Some Christian leaders made sure their enemies knew how they felt about them! Among the Evangelicals, at least,  certain leaders seemed to go out of their way to find the harshest words available to demonize their opponents and then complained bitterly of their poor reputations—predictably blaming the media for their plight.

            And then something amazing happened.  Benedict XVI, that brilliant and troubled man, stepped down and the college of cardinals elected Jose Mario Bergoglio pope.  From the first moments of his papacy Pope Francis let the world know that a different spirit was now blowing through Rome and, indeed, through the entire world.  His simplicity, his humility, his generosity caught everyone off guard.  We had gotten used to the sober keepers of the sacred flame.  We had gotten used to the chiding, the warnings, the frowns, and finger wagging.  And here came a man who eschewed the papal apartments, worshipped with the housekeepers and gardeners, and made phone calls to single mothers and recuperating critics!  He seemed cheerful, at ease, confident and hopeful.   He denounced greed and indifference to the poor, suffering and desperate. He called the church away from obsession with moral, theological and political squabbles and back to the good news of the Gospel: that this world and its people are beloved of God, who redeemed it through Jesus and intends to make all things new.

`           The response has been stunning.  Almost overnight he changed the tone in Rome and, indeed, the entire Christian world.  Anyone who thinks he is going to substantially change Roman Catholic doctrine will be disappointed.  But he has shown what a genuinely caring and simple human being in a place of religious leadership can do to open doors and hearts.  He has even found a hearing among non-believers and people hostile to the church or faith of any kind.  It is clear that people have been longing for a religious figure who would demonstrate true humanity, humility and love. They have found in Pope Francis such a man.  He reminds me of that cheerful Italian peasant who loved God and people: Pope John XXIII.  Protestants in general and Evangelicals in particular have always had their disagreements with Rome.  I am no fan of the rigid top-down hierarchical structure, the marginalization of women, or the elevated role of the priesthood.  But this Protestant Evangelical is thankful for Pope Francis: his concern for the poor, his love for the other, his insistence on the beauty and hopefulness of the gospel.  For the first time in a long time I feel the stirring of hope.  And for that I am thankful to Pope Francis and to God.

John E. Phelan, Jr.