|This image appeared in The Mirror.|
Jesus says in John 20:29, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (NIV). Of course, it's this blind faith that atheists find very upsetting about religion. It isn't rational. Life should be rational. But, life is not rational. We love. We hate. We feel. It isn't rational. Oh, there are things that can help explain our loves, hates, and passions, but there is an ineffability to life as well - it's just beyond words, beyond explanation. We are, indeed, a product of culture, of geometry, of experience, of chemistry, of neurology... We are also more than the sum of those things...at least I think so. That is what spirituality points us toward. And, it is what religion, at its best, helps us organize and live in community around.
I grew up with Pope John Paul II. He seemed like a nice guy to this kid, but he was pretty far away from me. He lived through World War II in Poland, which led him to a deep appreciation for democracy and freedom; that seemed like a good thing to me. I was sad when he was shot (I mean, we should always be sad when someone is shot, right?). He spoke a lot about peace, and that was great. As a matter of fact, it was the peace movement within Roman Catholicism that spoke to me as a young adult. However, by 2000, his name had become synonymous with battles against women priests and, by extension, an antiquated view on women in general. By the end of 2001, he had become the pope in charge as the stories of abuse began to come at us at alarming rates. He was the pope when the Religious Right in the United States formed a odd relationship with Roman Catholics, lining up along a line of social conservative issues that did not seem, well, right, to me - a relationship, might I add, that would have been unthinkable a mere fifteen years before it began to tear at the fabric of mainline America. So, while there were many things about Pope John Paul II that appealed to me as a young United Methodist, the conflict and disappointment always kept him at a distance. Then came Pope Benedict XVI. I don't think I need to say much about him except to say I didn't have any warm fuzzies for the man.
Enter Pope Francis. He will probably never support women priests (he never has). He will probably continue to oppose LGBTQI rights (he always has). Despite these two very important issues, he has for the moment done something in me and throughout the world that I think Christians of many stripes yearned for - he has made the gospel tactile and real and meaningful. Upon his election, the first public act he did was to ask for prayers from those assembled. The UK newspaper The Telegraph dubbed him "Pope Francis the humble." He famously shirked the ermine cape, rode with the other cardinals rather than taking his private car, picked up his own bags at the pensione, invited the Patriarch of Orthodox Christians to a private meeting as well as to his inauguration, met with interfaith leaders and set a humble and hopeful tone for the future. In his first meeting with the press, out of respect for those of different faiths as well as those who hold fast to no particular faith, he blessed them in silence "respecting the conscience of each one of you, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God. May God bless you." In that same meeting, he explained that he wanted a poor church for the poor. In his first address to cardinals, he said that good shepherds would smell like their sheep. Then, in Holy Week, he went to a detention center to wash feet on Holy Thursday, including Muslims and women in a ritual usually reserved for men, well, to be fair, priests. Ultimately, he decided not to move into the papal apartments, but to live in community in the guest house eating in community, sharing the table with others. Of course, he also kept his old black shoes, too. There, too, are the endless pictures of unexpected things: hugging and kissing a boy with cerebral palsy, greeting people after preaching, and blessing a guide dog. And, last, he is celebrating mass in the Vatican guest house...every day, it seems...and he sits in the back during prayer.
That's great, some people say, but what about the substance? What about his "stances" on "important issues"? Just after he was elected, the Christian Science Monitor summed up the new pope on his pre-election views on hot topics. I doubt those views will change. What makes Pope Francis more than these hot button issues is the real substance that he is moving us all toward. The gospel. All of those "symbolic" things that he has been doing along with his easy to follow but deeply spiritual homilies and talks are the substance. He is calling Christians back to a gospel of generosity, love, forgiveness, incarnation, sacrament, community, justice, and compassion. He has spoken about the importance of protecting the environment. He has proclaimed that we should never cease asking for forgiveness because God never tires of extending it. To make my point further, let's look at the recent showing of the Shroud of Turin. I could care less whether it was "real" or "fake," much like I could care less about a whole host of things that could "prove" the Resurrection or the Virgin Birth or... When the pope rose to speak about the shroud, he did not speak of carbon dating or proof, he spoke about mystery and pain and violence and peace:
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I join all of you gathered before the Holy Shroud, and I thank the Lord who, through modern technology, offers us this possibility.
Even if it takes place in this way, we do not merely “look”, but rather we venerate by a prayerful gaze. I would go further: we are in fact looked upon upon ourselves.
This face has eyes that are closed, it is the face of one who is dead, and yet mysteriously he is watching us, and in silence he speaks to us.
How is this possible? How is it that the faithful, like you, pause before this icon of a man scourged and crucified? It is because the Man of the Shroud invites us to contemplate Jesus of Nazareth.
This image, impressed upon the cloth, speaks to our heart and moves us to climb the hill of Calvary, to look upon the wood of the Cross, and to immerse ourselves in the eloquent silence of love.
Let us therefore allow ourselves to be reached by this look, which is directed not to our eyes but to our heart. In silence, let us listen to what he has to say to us from beyond death itself. By means of the Holy Shroud, the unique and supreme Word of God comes to us: Love made man, incarnate in our history; the merciful love of God who has taken upon himself all the evil of the world to free us from its power.
This disfigured face resembles all those faces of men and women marred by a life which does not respect their dignity, by war and violence which afflict the weakest… And yet, at the same time, the face in the Shroud conveys a great peace; this tortured body expresses a sovereign majesty.
It is as if it let a restrained but powerful energy within it shine through, as if to say: have faith, do not lose hope; the power of the love of God, the power of the Risen One overcomes all things.
So, looking upon the Man of the Shroud, I make my own the prayer which Saint Francis of Assisi prayed before the Crucifix:
Most High, glorious God, enlighten the shadows of my heart, and grant me a right faith, a certain hope and perfect charity, sense and understanding, Lord, so that I may accomplish your holy and true command.
C'mon. "...immerse ourselves in the eloquent silence of love?????" That's pretty poetic.
These things are important even to Protestants like me. Why? Because they all - the symbolic acts and the words themselves - are substantive calls to a simple, caring, generous, other-centered, poverty-centered, community-centered, loving, and forgiving world. Everything I have heard from this pope has been about God's mission of healing and reconciliation. None of what he has said has been about the survival of the Church, not once, at least not that I have read or heard. In his cardinal days he said of the abuse scandal, "We must never turn a blind eye. ...I do not believe in taking positions that uphold a certain corporate spirit to avoid damaging the image of the institution." That's a big deal.
As a pastor, I am weary of the calls to "turn around the church." I am sick and tired of the adoption of both business language and business practices that have infested the church. I am done with it. As a Christian, I am desperate, as are other Christians, for a church less concerned with itself than with love, compassion, generosity, simplicity, justice, forgiveness, joy, community, sacrament, and incarnation. Many have said what a sad day for Christians that we all fall over ourselves when a pope lives the gospel. While there is a sad truth in that, there is also a reductionistic, oversimplistic sarcasm in it, too. Living the gospel is not easy. Perhaps, this might be especially true for someone can can choose to live in a gilded cage, (literally a home that is gilded!) We see this at play with the easy creature comforts of life in middle America. More often than not, we do not want to live with the dirty, messy, smelly, unruly people who dwell on the sidewalks of our urban areas, camping out in parks and under overpasses. We do not want low income housing springing up next to our homes...nor do we want half way houses...or transitional housing, or... We don't. Most of us don't, anyway. However, radical community is the gospel. It is not part of the gospel. It is the gospel. That is why one cannot be a follower of Jesus, much less a "little Christ" (the literal translation of Christian), on our own. Jesus lived in community. He healed communities. He restored people to community. He loved in community. And his gospel was communal. Based in this world. In community. In between you and me. It is concerned with the stuff of real life.
Despite doctrine and ecclesiology differences, this pope has done something for this follower of Jesus. So, while he may not really be my pope, I thank him for what he is doing. He is offering himself as something to poke and prod, hug, see, touch, listen to, and struggle with. Much like Jesus did. To Thomas. And, that is very much the gospel.