Only a day into his papacy, and I’ve got to admit, Pope Francis has my attention. In an editorial piece on the Sojourners website today, Jim Wallis cited a surprising and very heartening quote from the new pontiff, especially for those looking in from the outside as non-Catholics. Here’s an excerpt from one of his first public addresses:
“We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church. It’s true that when you get out into the street, as happens to every man and woman, there can be accidents. However, if the church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it gets old. Between a church that suffers accidents in the street, and a church that’s sick because it’s self-referential, I have no doubts about preferring the former.”
What is most exciting to me is that this statement could just as easily been given by one of the current missional church leaders, leading the way to major changes in the protestant church. Whether it’s sexual scandal, collective and cultural doubt, internal division or dwindling numbers, it’s easy to turn in on ourselves when things are tough, endeavoring to protect and preserve what we have left. But Pope Francis rightly calls us out of that way of thinking, instead taking willing risks by focusing outward. He even acknowledges that we’ll screw up, probably more than once. Even so, he’d rather be the head of an imperfect church whose mission is focused on those beyond the walls, rather than one who seeks to appear strong or blameless at the cost of vulnerability and transparency.
Okay, maybe I’m ahead of myself. Maybe my idealism is in overdrive and I’m reading more into this than there is to see. After all, he doesn’t adress the scandals riddling the church explicitly. Not yet. But by all accounts, this new Pope is the kind of man who walks the walk. If so, there’s reason to hope that the Catholic Church may set an example for all of us – religious and non-religious alike – by being more open, vulnerable and compassionate, regardless if it’s hard, risky or even a little bit scary.
Will more churches close? Yes. Have we heard the last of religious scandal stories? Hardly. But one promising step toward that end begins with confession, and before we can confess, we have to acknowledge what really matters: care for the poor, the vulnerable and fulfillment of Jesus’ Gospel call to the world.
If it costs us the church as we know it in the process, so be it. Good riddance, in fact.
It’s my hope that we’ll continue to find a true advocate and ally in Pope Francis as we strive toward this horizon all together.