By Graham Glover –
Unlike my good friend and colleague, Rev. Joel Hess, who seems to think that Pope Francis’ recent trip to the States, especially his address to the US Congress, was a colossal failure, I found the pontiff’s visit to be both instructive and encouraging. This undoubtedly doesn’t surprise many loyal readers of The Jagged Word, as I’ve voiced my affection for the papacy a few times before. But my appreciation for Francis’ visit has little to do with the office he holds. Rather, it has everything to do with the manner in which he conducted himself during his stay and his keen ability to understand the audience he is addressing.
I acknowledge there may have been a few things, or more specifically, a la Rev. Hess, one thing, that Francis might have considered doing differently during his visit. But I’m not Roman Catholic. I don’t presume to speak for the Roman Church, and I think it a bit presumptuous for me, a Lutheran clergyman, to lecture the pope on how he ought to carry out the duties of his office. So, for those of you that inherently detest the office of the Bishop of Rome, I ask you to take a deep breath and consider, even if only for a moment, what Francis did over the past few days that garnered my appreciation and gained my respect.
For me, the most instructive part of Pope Francis’ visit was his ability to understand and contextualize his audience. Specifically I have in mind his addresses to the US Congress and the United Nations. Ironically, it is these two speeches that drew the ire of many Protestant commentators. “He didn’t mention Jesus!” or “He didn’t talk about the Gospel!” or “He wasn’t forceful enough in his denunciation of abortion and homosexuality!” For these naysayers, Francis failed because he didn’t “preach” to the politicians and the ambassadors. On their estimation, he should have used his opportunity at the podium to clearly and repeatedly preach about Jesus and society’s ills (and I remain unclear which they would have preferred he talk more about). But this critique is short-sided and ultimately indicative of many Protestants inability to understand how Christians, and more specifically the church, might engage secular culture and institutions. It also illustrates many conservative Christians’ obsession with only two social issues. Francis reminded us that there are many other issues Christians can and should concern themselves within the political realm.
It is short-sided because Pope Francis was invited to address the US Congress and the United Nations not in his capacity as a priest/bishop/theologian, but because he is head of state to the Vatican. (Cue Lutherans/Protestants going crazy about the pope comingling the office of bishop with that of a “prince”.) In other words, he was not invited to give a sermon. He was invited as a diplomat. Let me reiterate, he was NOT invited to preach! If Francis took the podium and preached as he did when he presided at Mass in New York and Philadelphia, he would have lost the attention of many and ultimately failed in what he sought to do. Moreover, if his words were laced with those that conservative American Evangelicals typically use in their political discourse, his speech would have been heard and ultimately received only by those who already agree with him on the issues of abortion and homosexuality. Instead, Pope Francis taught us how Christians might take opportunities like these to speak in bigger terms, with broader images, not abandoning our faith or forsaking our Lord, but in proclaiming the message of Christ and His Church to people in ways we typically don’t in the pews. His words addressed universal truths and sacred principles that people of different faiths can appreciate and embrace. Human rights, religious liberty, and economic and political policies that affect the entire world are not issues that are unique to Christianity or that can be framed only by followers of Christ. The pope knows this and the eloquence of his speeches reflected this.
Above all I was encouraged by Pope Francis’ visit because he did what Christians ought to be doing all the time, that is, engaging people who don’t share our normative concerns and embracing people who don’t share our faith. By doing this, Francis represented Christ even when he didn’t mention Him. He proclaimed Christ even when he wasn’t carrying out his unique priestly duties. He exemplified Christ even when those around him rejected Him and His message of forgiveness and salvation. What an encouraging example for all Christians who seek to share the love of Christ for others.
I learned much from Pope Francis last week. This is most certainly true.