One of the great things about the Catholic Church is its deep sense of tradition. One of the worst things about the Catholic Church is its resistance to change.
Pope Francis, who celebrates his one-year anniversary as the Holy See on March 13th, has left many of us Catholics believing that change is not only inevitable but also welcome, even within the Church.
As many of you know, I often harbor skeptical thoughts about the Church and religion in general. I imagine others feel the same way about their own spirituality. Questioning beliefs and the motivation behind religious doctrine doesn’t make you a non-believer, it makes you smart. When we ask ourselves why we are following a certain belief system, we are more likely to create a stronger commitment to our actions, thereby giving them greater meaning as opposed to simply “going through the motions”. Personally, I don’t need Church doctrine or Bible verses to motivate me to treat others with compassion. I help others simply because I genuinely like people. And this is what draws so many of us to Pope Francis: his genuine love for people – not just those who live the way he thinks they should live, but all people.
When Pope Francis was first elected there was, of course, much speculation on what his election meant to the Church. Many Europeans and Americans enjoy the luxury of concerning themselves with more esoteric questions regarding the direction of the Church as we move further and further into the twenty-first century. However, while the position the Church takes on issues such as homosexuality and women’s leadership roles under the new pontiff affects the lives of many of us residing in developed nations, the fact remains that a vast majority of our brothers and sisters still struggle to find food and clean water – not to mention health care – for themselves and their families in areas of the world where much of the population identifies itself with the Catholic Church. The challenge for today’s Church, then, is to address modern world problems while still working to ensure basic needs of survival are met for the millions of people throughout the world who, despite the affluence of many of the world’s super powers, still live in extreme poverty.
So far, Pope Francis has demonstrated he is willing to address all of these concerns, and he is doing a fine job of it, too.
The week following his election, I took notice of the new pope’s influence among all Christians, not just Catholics, when a friend of mine who serves as a youth minister at a local Baptist church said to me, “What do you think of your new pope? My wife absolutely loves him!”
You know when a statement like this was made to me by a Baptist? How about never?
Suddenly I realized that this new world religious leader represented Christ to more than just the members of the Secret Society, AKA, Catholics. This pope is shaking things up and uniting people of all faiths (and non-faith) all over the world. Pope Francis reminds us that Jesus didn’t tell us, “If you do such-and-such, then I will love you.” Jesus said, “I love you.” Furthermore, Jesus told us, “Go, and love one another.” Period. He didn’t say, “Hey, as long as they follow the rules and live the way you tell them to live, and look like you, then it’s OK to sit down and have dinner with them.” NO! In fact, that’s what the Pharisees did, and, if I recall correctly, Jesus told us, “Live not as the Pharisees do. Instead, live as your heavenly father says to live, and love one another.” (Granted, I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the point).
And, now, over two thousand years later, we find a pope who tells us:
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics.”
“In this we feel the closeness also of those men and women who, while not belonging to any religious tradition feel, however, the need to search for the truth, the goodness and the beauty of God, and who are our precious allies in efforts to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and the careful protection of creation.”
Our new pope is a man who refused to reside in the Apostolic Palace and also recently said that the Church could tolerate some types of non-marital civil unions in order to guarantee property rights and health care. He also admonished the Church to apply its teaching against artificial birth control with “much mercy”. And, while the pope maintains he is “a normal person, not a superman”, during his first year as leader of the Church Pope Francis has brought reform to the Vatican’s financial system, washed the feet of Muslim prisoners (encouraging cooperation and compassion among the world’s religions), proclaimed that women’s roles in the Church need to be increased, and criticized capitalism and trickle-down economic theories.
In short, it’s been a very busy year for the 77 year-old Holy See and one filled with hope and inspiration for Catholics as well as other believers (and even non-believers). Pope Francis has emerged as a leader who aspires to listen to the people – and inspire them to work toward ending poverty, war, hunger, and hatred throughout the world.