When my father died in 2010, I found substantial solace in a church community, for which I'll always be grateful. For a year or so thereafter, our family were relatively regular attendees. But even as I genuinely liked the individual people in our church, I found myself increasingly struck by the hypocrisy I saw in the broader Christian world. I saw self-proclaimed Christians actively working to spread intolerance towards gays and Muslims here and abroad, and pursue policies that enriched the powerful at the expense of the poor. I watched Catholic leaders continue to cover up the most heinous crimes against children, protecting the institution of the church instead of displaying basic humanity. I grew angry once again as politicians co-opted God in the pursuit of personal and party gain. (There's a great book on the latter topic called God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, by Jim Wallis, a Protestant pastor and leader of a non-partisan Christian activist movement.)
And so I withdrew again to the comfort of my couch and my own personal beliefs, which can really be boiled down to the Golden Rule - do unto others, and all that. Or, as I explain it to my kids, 'don't be a jerk'. I fail at this constantly, because I'm pretty awesome, but I try to approach the world with humility. I believe in Gheorgheness, in the value of being silly, in trying really hard not to take myself seriously, and truly, in trying (failing, often) to view the world through others' eyes.
In September, he gave a lengthy interview to America magazine, a Catholic review. At the outset, when asked by the interviewer, "Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?", the Pope replied, "I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner."
Later, in a discussion about the church's position on abortion and gay marriage, he said,
“I see clearly … that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up."
“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all."
He drives a beat-up Renault around the Vatican, on his own. He's washed the feet of prisoners, women, and Muslims. He wore a clown's nose to help a couple celebrate their marriage.
And most importantly of all, he's spoken repeatedly of the things he finds important, and they're not bureaucracy and politics and power. With respect to the latter, he says, "Politics is the most important of the civil activities and has its own field of action, which is not that of religion." Even more direct in his criticism of the power-seekers in the Vatican later, he said, "Leaders of the Church have often been Narcissus, flattered and sickeningly excited by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy."
No, Pope Francis' message is personal, not political. Love, joy, and mercy above all. Says the Pontiff, "When a person or a society suffers devaluation and disintegration, certainly in the bottom of their hearts they lack peace and joy, and sadness nests. Disunity and contempt are children of sorrow. Sadness is a truth that belongs to the spirit of this world, and the remedy is joy.”
I'm the furthest thing from a theologian, and I'm completely unqualified to assess the broader doctrinal impact of Pope Francis on the Catholic church. I don't know Vatican II from Porky's 2. But I know that a world where we treat each other like people, where our better angels govern our actions, where pursuit of joy trumps pursuit of power is a far more appealing place than the alternatives. And when the leaders of one of the world's great religions speaks and acts in the manner of Francis, the ripples reach us all. Life's complicated as shit, for all of us. We're all fucked up in our way, and we're all seeking. When a man who speaks to billions of people is focused on joy, and love, and simple humanity, that's a powerful force for good.
So count me as a fan of Pope Francis, and his humility and grace. I'm still probably not headed to church anytime soon, but if a little Francis-style church gets into our headspace, that ain't a bad thing.
You could almost make the argument that he's a little bit Gheorghey. The first Gheorghian pope? We could all get down with that.