The Frustratingly Refreshing Pope Francis

By Graham Glover

Like many others, I am at a loss in trying to figure out Pope Francis. (For those of you Lutherans reading this that loathe the papacy, move along, there’s nothing to see here…)

Honestly, I can’t figure out if Francis is a theological genius or someone who just might turn the Vatican and its curia upside down – or perhaps even sow the seeds that will ultimately destroy it.

Look, I’m a Pope Benedict XVI guy. I love everything about him. For starters, it probably doesn’t hurt that he’s a German who likes beer and understands and appreciates Lutheranism more than any pope since the Reformation. But I love the former Cardinal Ratzinger because he is a serious dogmatician. He is a theologian’s best friend. His scholarship is simply unmatched, and I can never read enough of it. I also grew up with Pope John Paul the Great. Both of these popes shared a similar theological disposition, even if their styles were different. They were both traditional and conservative in their writings and in their commentary. Of this, no one ever doubted.

But now we’ve got Francis. Like many of my Roman Catholic friends, I find myself pulling what little hair I have left out of my head when trying to understand and explain some of the things Francis says. “He said what?” “You can’t be serious. That has to be a misquote!” “Is he speaking in some type of cryptic Roman code that we Lutherans don’t understand?”

I think it’s safe to say that Francis is not a rigid dogmatician. He doesn’t see the world through black and white lenses. He most assuredly doesn’t give simple answers with clear analyses and applications. Rather, this pontiff seems to like speaking off the cuff. I think he tries to push the envelope on issues and practices that makes the Roman hierarchy go crazy. And to the extent that anyone cares what a Lutheran pastor thinks, I find this approach extraordinarily frustrating. I think Pope Francis, whether he means to or not, causes confusion among the faithful more often than he realizes. This guy is obviously not cut from the same cloth as Benedict or John Paul, and this drives me crazy.

Pope Francis arrives at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem, in New York

So why is it that I also find Francis so very refreshing? While I don’t naturally share his pastoral approach and don’t often talk about difficult theological issues like he does, there is something about this Bishop of Rome that fascinates me. I can’t yet put my finger on it, and I highly doubt I will ever think of him as I do Benedict XVI, but Pope Francis has my attention.

I think Francis practices the faith in a messy way. He likes to get dirty with things that are unclear. Nice, tightly packaged theological boxes are not the way Francis categorizes issues and practices. I love this. Even though it is entirely not the way I think or approach theology, I think it’s great.

Strangely, I am drawn to Francis’ easygoing approach. I find myself oddly appreciating the gentle way he discusses things. It’s not that he is abandoning Roman doctrine (at least I don’t think he is, but then again, I’m a Lutheran), it’s that he is practicing it in ways that recent popes have not. He doesn’t care if his comments aren’t the traditional ways popes talk. He likes to reach out to those that are outside the faith and even those inside it that are not the ones typically thought of as model Christians. He really likes these folks. His entire papacy seems directed toward them. And again, I am drawn to this.

Who knows how long Francis will remain pope? His successor may be just as different or even more radically unconventional. For now, though, I will continue to watch and marvel at this pope and, much to my surprise, find myself trying to talk and act like him – which is a most frustratingly refreshing way to practice my vocation.