Disclaimer: I am not Catholic and I am not trying to convert you to the Catholic Church. I am also not anti-Catholic or anti-Roman. I am an Anglican priest and part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church…and so are you!
Let’s be honest, very little has been left unsaid leading up to Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States beginning Tuesday, September 22. It is quite evident that Pope Francis’ papal visit is a big deal. A man of the people, a priest of humble background, and a pontiff committed to “cleaning house” in the Vatican, Pope Francis has a restored high regard for the papacy from many corners of the world. Pizza boxes in Philadelphia welcome him and show his face, app developers have created “Papal emojis,” he will be speaking to Congress, and his encyclical Laudato si has been praised, scorned, celebrated, and dismissed by politicians, religious leaders, and scientists. What makes this pope “different”? Why is Pope Francis such a big deal? And, why am I so looking forward to his visit to America?
To answer those questions, I’d like to briefly view the first 18 months of Pope Francis’ papacy through the lenses of ecumenism, humility, pastoral ministry, and Christian ethics.
First, Pope Francis’ visit to the United States is important based on his ongoing ecumenical efforts. In a papal letter from August, Pope Francis announced that the Roman Catholic Church would be joining Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople and the Eastern Orthodox Church in observing a Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. The letter similarly encouraged Christians of other traditions/denominations to join in the act of praying as well. The very fact that Patheos is hosting so many blog posts on the “Public Square” page or that other non-Catholic, religious outlets are excitedly anticipating his visit is proof that this is no ordinary papal visit because Pope Francis is no ordinary pope.
Second, perhaps the most emphasized characteristic of the Argentinian pontiff is his humility. Cardinal Bergoglio adopted the papal name “Francis” for the first time in the history of the papacy. Based on St. Francis of Assisi, the name bears the same humility as the religious order from which it is derived. Vows of poverty, a commitment to serving the poor, and a love for all creatures and creation are traditional marks of Franciscan spirituality. Pope Francis sits on the same level as those with whom he is speaking, he has taken up simple residence in the Vatican, and he prefers simple clericals rather than ornate. In a time—particularly in the West—when the Church is viewed with skepticism or indifference at best and violent hatred at worst, Pope Francis’ humble spirit is an example to everyone. The Church has lately been accused of great atrocities, arrogance, and an obsession with power but this pope seems to be setting a much different example, one that we should consider following.
Third, much of the world has fallen in love with Pope Francis due to his own love for neighbors, strangers, and creation alike. We remember when he confessed his sins in public to a priest in St. Peter’s Basilica during Lent in 2014. We remember how he washed the feet of a young Muslim woman in 2013. We see his love of and commitment to creation care in Laudato si. Recently, he announced that priests will be ready to grant absolution for abortion in the Year of Divine Mercy, rather than reserving that right for bishops alone. Even more recently, he has encouraged parishes to offer asylum to refugees. The pope will have more opportunities to show the world what Christian-love-in-action looks like.
Finally, Pope Francis offers an example of consistent Christian ethics apart from and regardless of political convictions or affiliations. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-2012), wrote a brilliant article for New Statesman focusing on the politics of Pope Francis while also offering insightful and succinct commentary and background. It can and should be read here. Echoing William’s sentiment, it’s pure laziness to suggest that Pope Francis is “liberal” and that his predecessors (Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II) were “conservative.” There is far more to Pope Francis’ views, far more depth and consistency than realized by many, and we should instead be celebrating his moral theology and ethics rather than questioning his right to speak about creation care. His ethics appropriately delve into abortion, creation care, economics, same-sex marriage, and much more.
As we collectively move toward the Roman Catholic Church’s Year of Divine Mercy, what would it look like for all Christians to demonstrate a stronger commitment to ecumenism, humility, pastoral care, and Christian ethics? How can we follow the strong example of Pope Francis in our daily lives, in the life of our parishes, and in the church catholic?
This pope faces an uphill battle in child abuse scandals, possible corruption within the Vatican, evangelism, and fostering more ecumenical relationships. He will likely be misunderstood or misconstrued by many, but make no mistake: his visit to America is important. I am not a Roman Catholic but I am proud of Pope Francis as a Christian and I look forward to his visit and his continuing papal ministry.
Habemus Papam. Habemus Papam indeed, and I am thankful that we have such a pope for such a time as this.