When he was first elected back in March, I mentioned in a sermon that I would like members of my congregation to pray for him too, something I could not imagine hearing from my own pastor when I was a child sitting in the pews.
At the time I thought it was an unusual thing to do – a Protestant clergyman asking people to pray for a Roman Catholic pope. A local reporter even called to ask me why I was doing it. But the more I think about it, the more I’m glad I did it.
My hope was that Pope Francis would do something to restore integrity to the Catholic Church. I had no idea how he was going to do that, and I wondered if it was even within the grasp of one man, even one as talented and gifted as he seems to be. But still, I thought, the task was clear.
As it turns out, Pope Francis is doing it – and in an unexpected way. I’ve been reading news reports – maybe you’ve seen them too – of out-of-the-blue telephone calls, which have endeared him to the public, but occasionally unsettled his aides.
Just this week, apparently, the Pope called a 35 year-old Italian woman who was pregnant and whose boyfriend had left her. Turns out, the boyfriend was already married and had a family of his own. She told the Pope she felt “betrayed” and “humiliated.” Beyond that, “who will baptize my baby?” she asked him. “I’m divorced.”
The Pope spoke to her, she said, “like a dear, old friend.” He was certain there would be a pastor who would baptize her baby, but “if not, you know there’s always me.”
In addition to this call, the Pope also called an Italian man who has struggled to forgive God after the murder of his brother, and an Italian engineering student who can’t find work even with his degree. Aides say that the Pope is frequently on the phone – when he’s not busy fixing the Vatican bank, restoring trust in the Swiss Guard, or appointing a new Secretary of State for the Vatican.
The interesting thing – and it really shouldn’t be surprising– is that the church is seeing signs of life and hope because of the pastoral heart of its new Pope.
When I first became pastor of a larger church, the first pastor I worked with, and someone who has been my mentor over the years, called to say, “Don’t forget to make regular hospital visits.” I wasn’t surprised by the advice, because I had worked with him long enough to know his own pastoral heart, but it was nevertheless important, even critical, advice.
Don’t forget to be a pastor, he was saying. Don’t forget that those relationships become the foundation for everything else you do.
I hope I’ve learned that lesson. And I’m glad for the example of His Holiness, who’s also the pastor to a rather large flock.