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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Living history

Let me first say that I'm a dyed in the wool Lutheran.  My sympathies extend not toward high church liturgies but toward a biblical evangelicalism.  I don't have any desire to see protestant churches reunite with the Roman Catholic Church.  I think the Spirit today is working in our diversity and bringing to death the church's dreams of worldly power.  (Boy, could I go to town on that theme.  Maybe another time.)  But I recognize that the Roman Catholic Church holds enormous sway in the lives of over a billion people who look to the pope as their leader, and so I think the election of a new pope is an important event.  Plus, I love people both inside and outside Christianity -- and I want to see the Church of Rome living up to its potential to lift up Jesus in the lives of people so that the world might come to know him.

So how does it feel?  Have you even thought about it?

You lived this week in the midst of history that people will be talking about in five hundred or a thousand years.  A little weird, huh?

I'm talking about the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis I, of course.  If you know even a smidgen of church history, you realize that looking at the various popes in the Roman Catholic Church is one important way to gauge church history and to track the various movements within it.

You can't really understand Martin Luther without having at least a passing familiarity with Pope Leo X who was desperately authorizing the sale of indulgences to finance his building projects.  In fact, you probably can't get a grip on why the Protestant Reformation was such a big deal without going back to 1390 and realizing that at that time there were three separate popes, all claiming to be chosen by God to lead the Church, all marauding around Europe with their independent armies trying to grab the papal office by force.  The people of Europe saw this going on and said, "Something's wrong!"  People became deeply disillusioned with the Catholic Church but there were really no alternatives for the people of northern Europe until Luther stepped up and tried to reform things.

So today, I am a little awestruck by all the firsts.  These have been getting lots of press, but I think it's worth taking another look.  Pope Francis is:

  • The first pope in centuries -- probably twelve or thirteen hundred years -- elected from outside Europe.
  • The first pope elected from the western hemisphere.
  • The first pope elected from the southern hemisphere.
  • The first pope from Latin America.
  • The first pope to take the name Francis.
In addition, Francis has shown an obvious willingness to break with tradition in small but significant ways.  Some of what's been reported thus far seem like just little cute affectations that the man has taken on, but added together it seems Francis intends to use his platform to call the church to humility and responsibility.  For example, in the last few days we've heard about how Francis refused to stand on the customary elevated platform when he greeted the other cardinals.  He simply said, "I'll stay down here," and met his colleagues on their own level.  One of the descriptors that was used early on in the history of the papacy that seems to have gotten lost over the years is that the pope was the "first among equals."  Francis seems to be reasserting that level of collegiality.

Another "cute" story about the new pope is that after the ceremonies on the day of his election, he refused to ride the popemobile back to the elaborate quarters prepared for him and rather rode the bus with the others.  He then directed that he should be dropped off at the quarters where he had been staying so he could pay his bill.  When asked why he was doing this, he responded, "I stayed in the room, the bill is my responsibility."  He seems willing to set an example for the church.

Part of the intriguing possibility is that though Bergoglio has been a traditionalist, theologically speaking, and a conservative -- this has been hashed out in the press over and over again -- he also has deep roots in Latin American Catholicism.  The gift that the global south is bringing to the wider church (and I'm not just talking about the Catholic Church here) is primarily twofold:  First, a deep sense of the necessity and benefit of Christian community.  None of us comes to clarity or courage alone, as a mentor of mine likes to say.  The Latin American church in the last few decades has developed a deep sense of the need for community, the need for us to be interdependent.  Francis seems to be bringing this along to the Vatican, and it will be fun to see it play out.

The second gift of the Latin American church is a deep identification with the poor and dispossessed.  Since the days of Bartolome de Las Casas in the 1500's, who rejected ownership of a plantation complete with native slaves supplied by the Church to provide for his financial needs, voices from Latin America have risen up to defend the peripheral, powerless, and poor against the hierarchies of wealth and power both inside and outside the Church.  (If you want a reminder of this tradition, go watch the old movie "The Mission" with Robert DeNiro.  It's a powerful, heartbreaking story of the struggles within the church in Latin America.)  Francis also brings this identification with the poor to Rome with him.  It's one of the things that got him elected by his fellow Cardinals.  In an interview today with reporters, he talked of this identification with the poor and explained that his choice of the name "Francis" has a great deal to do with Francis of Assisi, who turned from wealth and power to a life of simplicity and poverty in order to reform the church and to serve as an advocate for the poor and powerless.

One of the most intriguing things I've seen in Francis' actions so far is that in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, he points back to some of the reforms of Vatican 2 in the 1960's.  Vatican 2 more than any Roman Catholic statement before or since gave an increasing amount of credence to other forms of Christianity and other churches.  Vatican 2 also opened the door to more diverse expressions of language and culture within the church, especially opening up the way for the Catholic Mass to be celebrated in the language of the people rather than in Latin.  

In that meeting with reporters today Francis acknowledged that many of them are not Catholic, but said that he would like to bless them because they are all "children of God."  He has already appealed to one of the leading Jewish rabbis in Rome to open talks.  (Bergoglio has a history of close relationships with the Jewish community in Buenos Aires.  Not to mention that he is considered a close friend by some of the leading evangelicals in South America, including Argentinian Luis Palau.)  He seems to be eager for the Church of Rome to be in dialogue with other religious expressions from a position of humility.

The other intriguing thing Francis did is that in his very first appearance, he (again) broke with tradition when he was first presented to the crowds waiting at the Vatican.  Instead of coming out to bless them immediately, he asked them to bless him by praying for him, and then took a moment of silence for that prayer.  In this direct but simple way he acknowledged his dependence on the people and on God, and only after that moment for silent prayer did he pronounce a blessing on the crowds.

Yet another reform coming out of Vatican 2 was an appeal for Catholics to read their Bibles, an activity that has been viewed with some suspicion in the Roman Catholic Church over the centuries, as Catholics believe that the Bible must be correctly interpreted by the traditions of the church.  But stories are emerging of Bergoglio as a man who loves to sit and read his Bible, even doing so together with evangelical Christians, sharing fellowship in God's Word together.  Powerful stuff, and I hope he brings it to Rome with him.

I don't believe a lot of the hype the Catholic Church has built up around the papacy over the years.  I'm certainly no "go home to Rome" Lutheran.  But I am excited by the possibility that the man who is in the head office of the Roman Church knows Jesus, reads his Bible, and comes out of a Christian tradition that is currently leading the church toward simplicity and community.  These are heady days for our Catholic brothers and sisters, and we would do well to pray for them as Francis navigates the waters of these first days of his papacy.  May God bless and direct him and provide him with faithful, able coworkers in the task of following the Spirit's guidance in his leadership.

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