Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio) is the 266th bishop to preside over the Roman Catholic Church. Time Magazine named him 2013 Person of the Year (with the ill placed “M” which makes it appear he has horns). Many of my evangelical friends will have a fit if they read this. Imagine that, people getting uptight about one of my blogs? But he himself started to rock the boat within weeks of his new appointment.
It was controversial enough, choosing the first pontiff from the Americas, and from the Southern Hemisphere, bringing a very different brand of Catholicism to the Vatican. His work among the underserved and his Jesuit training brought about a stark contrast to his predecessor, Pope Benedict. Even choosing the name of Francis, after Francis of Assisi, who also raised eyebrows wherever he went and dedicated his life to the forgotten and overlooked of his day.
THE GOSPEL IS ABOUT LOVE, NOT MARGINALIZING DOGMAS
Being a Jesuit, Francis’ ministry focuses on apostolic work, particularly communicating the words of Christ and helping people to obey them. His concern is the fixation on ideological hot potatoes like homosexuality and abortion, the “practice of prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized.” It’s not a change in doctrine but a change in priorities. While his feelings on these issues are solid, he chooses not to discuss them ad nauseam. “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. We have to find a new balance, otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
We know what we believe. “They” know what we believe. Fine. Let’s focus on the heart of Christ’s words and the actual Great Commission. “I see the church as a field hospital after battle,” Francis said. “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” Important issues can and do detract from the deeper yet simpler message of Christ’s love and forgiveness (Matthew 23:23).
IT’S OK TO STEP DOWN FROM OLYMPUS ONCE IN A WHILE
It’s been rumored that Francis many times sneaks out of the Vatican at night in “civilian” clothing so he can stay in touch with humanity. “I cannot live without people.” By day, he is surrounded by guards, servants, other religious leaders. But his true passion is to be among the masses: having conversations with them, consoling, serving…loving them.
How often do we leave our weekly place of worship without even giving thought of reaching out to those outside of our Christian circles? We may respond to the events and scheduled outreaches, but what about the times in between? Or the people we see every day without ministering Christ’s love? We pray for opportunities, not realizing it’s being answered daily.
His attempt at covert activity reminds me of Someone else Who was willing to be shorn of authority and adoration. Someone Who was willing to embrace humility and meekness so that He could get close to the ones He loved (Philippians 2:3-11).
NO ONE IS UNTOUCHABLE
Last fall while greeting people, Francis stunned the crowd by embracing a man with Neurofibromatosis, a disease which leaves cell and tissue growth badly deformed. He didn’t just touch Vinicio Riva, but kissed him. Riva later stated, “I tried to speak, to say something but I was unable to. He touched my face and when he was doing it, I only felt love.” This is not new for the Pope “without barriers.” Last Easter, he has washed the feet of juvenile prisoners. He has cared for refugees and hugged disabled pilgrims at his audiences.
Courage. Compassion. True Love. It’s what made Jesus touch lepers. Hang out with society’s rejects. The ones abhorred by the religious. The ones too low, dirty, despicable, and sinful to even think about. And yet, we’re to follow in Christ’s footsteps.
Perhaps if we find ourselves getting indignant with Francis’ statements, actions, and opinions, we should ask ourselves why. Are we trying too hard to protect the status quo and our position? Do we reject others’ viability to be saved because they won’t be up to our standard of Christianity? Do we think too highly of ourselves? In his own words, “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the Church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”
Can we envision our churches becoming a “home for all?” That’s some scary language there. It’s not just the ideas of those liberal Christians or Universalists. While he is causing a stir, I can’t help but say, he’s doing what Jesus would do (Luke 5:31).