He's been called a "break-the-mold pope" and most would agree that Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air. One of my Catholic friends says that this is the first time in her lifetime that she identifies with a pope, is proud of him, and is excited about his visit. But why should Pagans and other non-mainstream religions care that the Catholic pontiff is coming to the United States this month?
To the fiercely independent-minded and often insular Pagan world, Francis is an artefact of a past empire, a symbol of the hierarchy we have rejected, and a reminder of past religious persecutions. And yet, Pope Francis has shaken the Catholic world with his persistent message that the church is here to serve the suffering, not to impose the religious legalism for which it is often better known. From his recent encyclical on the environment to last week's admonition to forgive women who have had abortions, Francis continues to surprise.
Surprised may just be how many in Congress feel when he addresses them; Francis's positions on abortion, the death penalty, immigration, corporate power, and the environment do not fit easily into American categories of political thinking. I am surely not the first to think of Jesus scourging the temple, or Francis of Assisi walking away from his father's wealth. Still, righteous indignation being the order of most days in Washington, I trust he will hold his own with suitable aplomb.
It is difficult for many of us to look past our negative impressions of the religious mammoth that caused so much destruction to indigenous peoples around the world, and was anything but tolerant of other religions for most of its history. But the reality is that Roman Catholicism has so far withstood all the dire predictions of those who would relegate it to the trash-bin of anachronism.
Now, blossoming out of that troublesome history is a man who gives voice and gravity to many of our own Pagan concerns. The "people's pope" refuses the red shoes, dives into large crowds without his bodyguards, and gleefully engages with everyone he meets. He challenges corporate interests with an ideology which is nothing short of socialist. He constantly champions the poor, and regularly reminds his own leaders and flock to be merciful. What better role model could any caring person hope for?
Despite his beneficent public persona, Francis is still only a man. He recently dismissed the idea of female priests as not open for discussion. I suspect this is less because he is opposed to women priests and more about picking his battles with the establishment. He has made a number of public gaffs about women which would have earned some public figures a Twitter walk of shame. Fortunately for him, even those comments fairly shimmered with his characteristic warmth and goodwill, earning the near-octogenarian a pass based on his apparent generational idiosyncracy. It's hard to be angry about dated mild gender stereotypes when he is also admonishing the church to embrace its lesbian, gay, and transgender members.
What about that ephemeral line of separation of church and state? I do have to wonder if the Dalai Lama or some other "not-of-the-book" religious leader will ever be given a similar public platform. If Francis's words are sorely needed by our elected officials, wouldn't that be just as true of the Dalai Lama? But I can see that Pope Francis has largely transcended the traditional papal baggage, emerging as the kind of universal leader needed in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and downright complicated world.
As a Pagan, I do not need Francis to be my spiritual leader. But as a world citizen, I need his call to compassionate leadership. I need him to challenge my own national halls of power with a different way of viewing the world. As a person of limited means and influence, I need his untiring advocacy for the average and downtrodden people. As a person of privilege (middle-class American, white, educated) I need him to push my thinking. As a Pagan, I welcome him to America and listen for him to continue calling for a better world for all of us, regardless of our spirituality.