STIRRINGS IN THE DESERT
Like many Catholics who have been wandering in a desert since the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963, I like what I see so far in Pope Francis I. But, I am afraid to get my hopes up too high. After all, our desert sojourn has been 50 long years, and in the intervening years we watched the gradual erosion of many of the hopes of reform sparked by John XXIII.
Still, it’s hard not to get excited by Jesuit Pope Francis. Just the selection of the name Francis was a stroke of genius. Not only does it underscore the new Pope’s commitment to the poor – which he demonstrated unequivocally as a bishop and later Cardinal in Argentina – it tantalizes with the suggestion that Pope Francis will follow up on God’s mandate to St. Francis to “rebuild my church.”
Since becoming Pope, Francis has gotten all the optics right – from getting rid of the glitter and gold and other trappings of royalty and referring to himself as “the bishop of Rome” (instead of Pope or Supreme Pontiff) to reaching out to peoples of other faiths, or no faith at all.
My high hopes for Francis were further boosted by reading ON HEAVEN AND EARTH. Originally published in 2010, this book “brings together a series of conversations between then Cardinal Bergoglio, Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, now Pope Francis I, and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, an Argentine rabbi, biophysicist, and professor of biblical and rabbinical literature at the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires.
Bergoglio and Skora – who have become close friends over the years – had been promoting interreligious dialogue for years among Catholics, Judaism, Islam, and the world at large on matters of faith and reason. This book brings together a series of their conversations on theological and worldly issues such as “God, fundamentalism, atheism, abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, same sex marriage,” and others. They don’t agree on everything, of course, but their attitudes towards one another are marked by strong friendship and deep mutual respect. And, of course, there is a great deal of common ground on so many of these issues.
The new Pope shows the same level of respect toward those of other faiths, or no faith at all, referring to the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, for example, as his brother. And declaring that all peoples who are moral and do good are redeemed and heaven bound, even atheists. The fact that this last statement caused heartburn among the rigid traditionalists at the Vatican is a sign that Francis is moving in the right direction and is not afraid to challenge orthodoxy.
Yet, while many Catholics and others see these “symbolic” signs as encouraging, they want to see more positive steps by the new Pope on such issues as priestly celibacy, women priests, equality for women in the Church, as well as more forthright action dealing with priestly pedophilia and cleaning up the Vatican Curia.
Meantime, as we wait impatiently for the next shoe to drop, we must keep in mind that symbolic actions are not meaningless actions. Symbols are at the heart of Catholicism and getting the symbols right is crucial and central. Already Francis has shown by word and example that the Catholic Church is no longer “catholic” in name only but an organization that makes Jesus and His open-arms approach to all peoples the central focus of the Church, not a remnant of the Roman Empire ensconced on the banks of the Tiber desperately clinging to power and prestige.
That is a huge change. Still, getting the right people in place to implement that change in a far-flung church of 1.2 billion Catholics throughout the world is an enormous challenge. From all signs thus far, though, Francis seems to warm to the challenge. Let’s hope God grants him the time to pull it off.
Stay tuned. This could get exciting. Hope springs eternal.