A Few Thoughts on the Papal Visit to the United States

The current visit of Pope Francis has attracted a great deal of media attention this week—welcomed attention in our opinion, if for no other reason than it has taken the spotlight off of Donald Trump for a few precious moments. abc7chicagodotcomWe have enjoyed a few conversations about this profoundly decent man as we have seen his visits to Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New York City.
Our conversations have been quite mixed, almost as mixed as our thoughts. Why would we say this? As a matter of our Biblical interpretation in the free-church tradition, we see little scriptural justification for an institution such as the papacy. It just doesn’t fit our view of scripture or of community life.
Historically, Baptists have been some of the most vehement anti-Catholics, to our shame. There is much of Roman Catholic doctrine that we find odious, wrong, or just downright silly, but there is also much of it that we find true. We serve the same Lord, but in radically different ways. It is a grace that the Lord has allowed different structures for different kinds of people to respond to the same Lord.
Now, back to the Bishop of Rome. His speech before congress was, homiletically speaking, brilliant. He presented himself humbly as one wanting to dialogue—not preach, not chastise, not catechize, but to dialogue about key issues through the framework of the lives of American historical figures. That provided a bridge to his audience. It is impossible to go wrong citing Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Likewise, presenting two people most Americans have never heard of created a teaching moment.
The issues he addressed, seem to us, valid. Who would want a spiritual leader that didn’t advocate for stewardship of the environment, care for the poor, openness to immigrants, defense of the family, civility in behavior, and stress the sanctity of all human life? His hermeneutics of the Golden Rule were spot on.
savetibetdotorgSome have argued that a religious figure should not be embraced in such a way as Pope Francis has been. To this we call shenanigans. People should remember that the Dalai Lama made a similar sweep through congress only last year, although he didn’t address a joint session, Benjamin Netanyahu has, and so too did Mikhail Gorbachev. Pluralism does not mean all religious discourse is unwelcomed, it simply means that all religions are part of the public discourse. For crying out loud, it says “In God We Trust” above the platform of the House!  In a free pluralistic society, there are many ways in which our people approach the Divine and that should be part of the conversation.
The bottom line is, if you’re going to have a pope, which we don’t think you should, but if you’re going to have one, Pope Francis is a fantastic one to have. We like him, so far.
While Pope Francis I (Jorge Mario Bergoglio) is the Roman Catholic Church’s first from the Jesuit order, he chose the name of Francis to honor St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the Franciscans. He has clearly demonstrated a humble spirit in the way he has occupied the role of Pope by choosing more modest accommodations than usual quarters in the Apostolic Palace, wearing much less ornate vestments and jewelry than his predecessors, and his unabashed support for the poor along with his continual discussion of the structural problems which perpetuate economic inequality and poverty. As is evidenced by his reception here in the United States, with the exception of Bill Maher, even those who vehemently disagree with his traditional positions on many controversial issues very much respect his authenticity in representing Christ.
As for us, we find Pope Francis endearing because the papacy is finally occupied by one who takes Matthew 25:31-46 seriously. This is the teaching of Jesus regarding whose faith he will find credible at the final judgment. The light of Jesus’ answer should put many of us to shame when he focuses on our response to the poor, disenfranchised, sick, and imprisoned. While many in the church have become rigidly pharisaical regarding peripheral or even biblically unsupported issues, Pope Francis has demonstrated what real spiritual leadership looks like by graciously declining a lunch with the leadership of the United States Congress in favor of dining with the homeless of Washington D.C. In a spirit of humility, Pope Francis neglected to mention that he was not only eating with the homeless, but he will be working to serve them at the lunch provided at St. Patrick’s Church.  This represents the theme of ‘pastoral ministry’ which he has brought back to the Roman Catholic Church, and we agree with him on that wholeheartedly.
As Christians who have spent a lifetime in the free-church tradition, we find the institutional papacy a little off-putting. But if there is to be a pope, we are sure excited that it is a profoundly Christ-like individual like Pope Francis.

images from abc7chicago.com and savetibet.org