Yes, I’ve decided to join Pope Francis’s church.
I don’t mean by that that I am going to become a Roman Catholic. I mean I am identifying with the millions–perhaps billions–of people who are astonished and gratified at how he is exercising his exalted and mediagenic position. Some of these are Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists and communists, as well as Christians of other persuasions. Some indeed are Roman Catholics, although it has to be acknowledged that there is a fearful, hard-core segment of the Roman Catholic Church which resents and resists what he is doing–a rapidly shrinking group, I hope. Yes, they belong to the Roman Catholic Church, of which Pope Francis is the head, but they don’t belong to Pope Francis’s global electronic church–let’s call it the Church of Justice and Love.
There is no doubt in my mind that Francis is the master of the gospel gesture in the age of mass media. These gestures are acted-out parables, intended to transcend the limitations of words and communicate a gospel message. The most recent of these is his visit to Lesbos, where he invited a dozen refugees–three Muslim families–to go back to Rome with him, where he has arranged for their reception and care through the Community of Sant’ Egidio.
[A moment here for the naysayers, those whose glasses are one-eighth full. “Only twelve? What about all the others? And Muslims–why not Christians?** What difference will twelve make?” OK, guys, you’ve had your grumpy moment–lighten up! He chose to light one candle rather than curse the darkness.]
Just think of the messages he has sent sent out to the world in the last two weeks:
*the Lesbos visit;
*the invitational Vatican conference (Bernie Sanders being one of the invitees) on war and nonviolence, and its declaration that the just-war theory, which has dominated Christian thinking about war since the fifth century, is obsolete in the age of nuclear weapons;
*the release of the document Amoris Laetitia/The Joy of Love, which over the years will put an end to the logjam of divorced-and-remarried Roman Catholics who have been excluded from communion. I recognize that the document didn’t give everybody (notably LGBTQ folk) everything they wanted. But as a mediating document for a huge community, on a subject with the capacity to split that community, it was a tremendous accomplishment, released after two international meetings of bishops, all of whom had been asked to consult the faithful of their dioceses on matters of family and sexuality;
* and let’s not forget his encyclical letter of some months ago, Laudato Si’, on climate change.
Refugees, war, family life and sexuality, climate change–he thinks big.
In our age of mass media, the pope has been made, chiefly through television, the head of the Christian Church, not just his own church. What the Roman Church was unable since the 11th century to accomplish through polemic and controversy has been handed to it on an electronic platter by the media. The average Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist thinks of the pope as the person who speaks for all Christians. Francis has become everybody’s pope, not just the leader of his own church.
This being so, it seems to me that it is in the interests of smaller Christian communions–Anglicans, Lutherans, Pentecostals, in Canada the United Church–to find creative ways of hitching themselves to the pope’s wagon. Those churches are not big enough or mediagenic enough for substantial media attention. But the big issues to which the pope is calling the world’s attention deserve the same attention from those churches as from his own.
I’ve written to my own bishop, expressing these thoughts, and expressing also the hope that she could do something in concert with the other bishops and eventually the archbishop of Canterbury, to connect our structures and our efforts to the mighty initiatives of Pope Francis. I hope to receive a positive response from her.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis–the man is going to be 80 on his next birthday!–shows no signs of slowing down. Power to his arm.
** After writing this blog, saw this in the Guardian Weekly (April 22, 2016, p. 22):
When he was asked why there were no Christians [among the refugees he took back to Rome], he replied that the Christian families that had been considered did not have their paperwork in order.