“What do you think about your pal, the Pope, now?” I was asked yesterday by someone I consider to be a friend – not the Facebook kind, but the more robust kind Jesus had in mind (John 15:15).
“So, now the pope’s ‘my pal,’” I thought.
A little history here. After the election of Pope Francis I, I wrote a blog post about asking my congregation to pray for the new pope – not something a Protestant clergyman typically does, I admitted, but perhaps understandable, even expected, in the current post-denominational landscape.
The new pope had a daunting task, I wrote, and he needs the prayers of the whole church. I argued – or tried to – that, theological differences aside, we are in this together. Catholics and Protestants need each other. People who do not embrace Christian faith tend not to make the fine doctrinal distinctions between believers that we do among ourselves.
What the pope has been up to
Since that post, I think you’ll agree that the pope has said and done some remarkable things.
In March, for example, he washed the feet of a young Muslim woman, a rite typically reserved for Catholics, not Muslims (and for men, not women). Catholic traditionalists, we were told, were very, very concerned.
Then, reports surfaced about the pope’s cold calls to struggling Catholics in Italy, even promising in one call to baptize the infant son of an unmarried woman, if her own priest wasn’t available. This time it was Vatican staff who expressed concern over the new pope’s behavior. Phone calls to hurting church members? Very concerning!
Most recently, we learned that the pope sometimes ventures out of the Vatican at night, dressed as an ordinary priest, to minister to the homeless. So far, I haven’t heard any concern about this habit, except perhaps for the pope’s personal safety.
What to make of it?
What are we to make of this decidedly unexpected papal behavior?
Well, I for one have been surprised and pleased. What better way to unite a broken church – and win the hearts of disaffected Catholics – than by demonstrating a pastor’s heart, by reaching out in personal and tangible ways? A member of my last church liked the idea of cold calling church members so much that she gave me the names of two members who, she said, would be thrilled to hear from me. (I followed through, and they were.)
Not everyone is as pleased, as turns out. Rush Limbaugh said last week on his radio program that the pope was going “overboard on the common-man touch.” Being compassionate and concerned for the poor is all well and good, in this view, but mostly as a public relations strategy. You wouldn’t want to see too much of that.
Or would you?
Here’s my take
I think the pope’s direct challenge to the church has been to demonstrate a great deal more of the – please pardon the expression – “common-man touch.”
“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus,” wrote the pope in his latest exhortation. “I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.”
I suspect that Limbaugh’s misunderstanding of what it means to have a pastor’s heart and to live with the “joy of the gospel” has also led him to misunderstand what the pope wrote in the papal exhortation about economics. Limbaugh labelled the pope’s comments “pure Marxism.”
The pope is smart, and he certainly knows as much about economic theory as Limbaugh, but my reading of the exhortation is that it expresses less in the way of economics than it does this “joy of the gospel.”
I think that what the pope is saying is this: “If it sounds like Marxism to you, so be it. I’m declaring what I know to be true about encountering Jesus and about the way hearts and lives are changed as a result of that.”
I’m still praying for this new pope. I don’t know if he’s my pal. But I do know that he’s my brother in Christ. And I want more than anything for him to succeed with the work God has called him to do.
(Photo: That’s the new pope in his clerical collar, not his papal vestments.)