This post is written by Michael Kimpan, Associate Director at The Marin Foundation.
From the start, there was an air of excitement surrounding this Pope – the Pontiff’s chosen name, never before used by any Pope in the history of the Church – Pope Francis – beckoning back to a celebrated hero of the Christian faith and gentle revolutionary, St. Francis of Assisi. According to Catholic tradition, this legendary leader of the church once heard a voice from heaven, saying ::
Go and rebuild my Church, which you can see has fallen into ruin.
Many have been optimistic that this former Cardinal of Argentina would kick some spiritual tail and bring about much needed reform within the Catholic Church’s hierarchy. In recent years, the Vatican has been plagued with scandal and allegations and is in desperate need of renewal – and many believe Francis is the guy to bring about those changes.
Still, LGBT activist groups pointed out at his papal election that as a Cardinal, the new Pontiff had more than a few things to say that seem to suggest it may be ‘more of the same’ in Vatican City. He had been quoted as saying that same-sex marriage is a ‘destructive attack on God’s plan‘ and went on to describe it as a ‘move‘ by the devil ‘to confuse and deceive the children of God.’ GLAAD President Herndon Graddick responded to the election in a statement saying,
‘For decades the Catholic hierarchy has been in need of desperate reform. In his life, Jesus condemned gays zero times. In Pope Benedict’s short time in the papacy, he made a priority of condemning gay people routinely. This, in spite of the fact that the Catholic hierarchy had been in collusion to cover up the widespread abuse of children within its care. We hope this Pope will trade in his red shoes for a pair of sandals and spend a lot less time condemning and a lot more time foot-washing.‘
Thus far, it seems that is precisely what Francis is doing. Not only did he skip the ceremonial wearing of the red shoes in the first place at his inauguration, but he has repeatedly surprised the world with a litany of other non-traditional behaviors.
Francis has received positive press for everything from making phone calls to pregnant single mothers, to personally telephoning the owner of a kiosk in Buenos Aires just five days after being elected to cancel the delivery of his daily morning newspaper. Earlier this year, Francis snubbed a lavish party invitation at the last minute (a classical concerto of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony held in his honor) and instead he later invited groups of homeless individuals to dine at the Vatican – in honor of them.
He has shunned the papal apartments in an effort to live a ‘normal life,’ and it has been reported that he’s even shunning the infamous pope-mobile – trading in his predecessor’s BMW and Mercedes cars for a used 1984 Renault that he plans to drive around Vatican City himself. The car is a donation from another clergyman, who used it to serve the poor in Verona. This is consistent with his call earlier this summer to priests and nuns to stay away from expensive cars and limousines.
Francis washed the feet of a female Muslim prisoner during services at Holy Week, causing a quite a stir with the theologians regarding the significance of allowing a non-Catholic to participate in the most intimate of worship practices. In July, Francis signaled a different attitude toward sexuality, asking ‘If someone is gay and is looking for the Lord, who am I to judge him?‘
This week, his response to an open letter published in the La Repubblica newspaper provided further evidence of his attempts to shake off the Catholic Church’s out-dated image, as well as his desire to engage in respectful dialogue with all people. In his response to a list of questions written to him, Francis wrote ::
‘You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to [God] with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.
Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.‘
The Pope’s comments in the letter (read the whole thing here) were hailed as ‘further evidence of his ability and desire to overcome barriers in dialogue with all.’ And while some of the above behaviors and statements seemingly have further theological significance than others, the pattern seems to be clear – this Pope seems more interested in engaging with all people – even those with whom he disagrees – and seemingly seeks to do so in a thoughtful, respectful, peaceful and productive dialogue.
In short, it appears Pope Francis is seeking to build bridges.
Perhaps each of us can learn something from his approach.
What do you think?