Just under 2,000 years ago, almost three quarters of a million sunsets ago, a Jew named Jesus started the Passover Seder by washing the feet of his followers in an act of humility and passion. To mark this event, the newly installed Pope Francis repeated the ceremony with a group of young prisoners at a juvenile detention center in Rome – two of whom were women. It may seem like a stunning sign of contrition from this new Pope, except that this is what we have come to expect from the Argentine Jesuit who has insisted that priests should be “shepherds who have the smell of their sheep.”
Who is Francis? Why does it matter? As we learned from the last two Popes, these two questions are closely intertwined because the office is made by the man who holds it – for better or worse. As we head into Easter it is good to have a closer understanding of this man and why he might make a big difference in faith – both personally and for the institution we know as the Catholic Church.
Consistent with the Church, I should open with confession. I am not Catholic, but on my Dad’s side there has been a confusing mix of Catholicism and Protestantism that has left my family divided. St Paul, my home, is a city that until recently was defined by Catholicism in many ways. It’s more than churches and parochial schools, too – Catholic Charities is a $40M per year organization that distributes almost a million pounds of food locally through their foodshelves and provides shelter for 73,000 otherwise homeless nights. As a city, we are “practicing Catholics” in that the good works of the church defines us.
So it matters who the Pope is even to a Prod like me, and I have to tell you that I really like Francis. Not only because he is from the Americas, but because his symbolic humility is a standard that I hope the whole world can come to understand and practice. He rode public transit to work as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and recently called up his newspaper delivery person from Rome to explain, regretfully, that he has a new job and won’t need the paper anymore. The foot washing was more than a ceremony, it is a way of life. It is a calling that Francis is going to be asking us all to join.
This is important because no matter what any of us think of the Church it is an important leader in a world that desperately needs leadership. Saint John Paul was probably the most important force opposing Communism, and also was the key to bringing down the Pinochet regime in Chile. Given the boldness and clarity that Francis has shown in a few weeks we can expect nothing less from him – except his enemy is less likely to be oppression and more likely to be inequality and poverty.
There are, of course, reasonable skeptics. The Church has been rightly hammered for its cover-ups of horrible abuses in its own ranks. Women are still systematically excluded from important leadership roles of any kind. Here in St Paul, the good will of the Church was sorely tested by its blind support of the anti-marriage equity amendment in the last election. You have to wonder how many neighborhood parishes or schools could have been kept open by the more than $500k they blew in a pathetic and wasted effort, too. Pope Benedict XVI was, at best, a waste of time and space.
The Church has to get itself in order and find a way to make a clean start. The best way to do that, aside from a full confession (which I hope is coming soon) is to return to the roots of what it means to be a disciple of Christ, the man who ministered not in gilded churches full of icons and soaring stained glass but among the hookers and drunks and castaways of society. They were the people that needed him, and Pope Francis understands that. It is a good start.
What am I hoping for from him? This Easter, I am asking for nothing less than a resurrection, a new passion of the Holy Spirit that casts aside sin and even death itself. I’d like to see a new calling of faith and humility, defined by doing good where it is needed most here on this earth. If that sounds like a lot to ask, it’s worth remembering that this is what Easter is actually all about in the first place. A repeat every 2,000 years isn’t really that much.
But it is important, even to those of us who are not members of the Catholic Church. Francis has set off to a great start, but the world needs so much more. I think he knows that, too. Let’s expect great passion and be a part of it.