As a general rule, I don’t like using the first singular pronoun “I”. Since the ramblings and conclusions that you read in this space are often developed after examining the thoughts and writings of minds far more astute than mine, wielding the “I” like some omnipotent deity seems disingenuous. My opinions are formed by listening to various arguments on both sides of a debate and then accepting that which seems less coated in bullshit; hence the preferred use of the first person plural pronoun, “we”.
But I believe that faith one’s faith and religious beliefs are very, very personal. So I hope you will indulge my journey into the first person.
I am a member of the Catholic Church. At one time I considered entering the seminary. Like most Catholics I confess that I do not practice all of the tenants of the Church. I don’t know if that makes me any less Catholic or any more a sinner than those who follow strict obedience to the Church’s teachings. I’ll let God be the judge.
I have heard Catholics when referring to their religious affiliation say: “I was raised Catholic”…or… “I am a lapsed Catholic”. Many use these clarifications because it has been years since they attended mass or received communion or confessed their sins. I would argue that unless they have moved onto some other type of religious congregation…Protestant, Pentecostal, Lutheran etc…they still consider themselves members of the Catholic Church. Because once you are baptized Catholic there is something about that community that stays with you forever. It is said that the largest religious community in the world is the Catholic Church, which is home to 1.2 billion faithful. It is also said that the third largest religious community in the world is made up of those who have left the Catholic Church and consider themselves “lapsed’ or “raised (but not practicing)” Catholics.
I bring this up because the events which occurred yesterday at the Vatican are very big deal to me and to a huge swath of the world’s population. “Habemus Papam!” “We have a Pope!”...are words that Catholics and “lapsed” Catholics around the globe have been eagerly anticipating since Benedict XVI took his leave. (Many of us have been waiting for a new Pope since John Paul II passed away. But that’s another story.) I have been waiting for someone to clean up the corruption and the greed. Someone to pull back the curtain and bring an era of transparency to an institution clouded by scandal and cloaked in secrecy. Someone to return the Church to its true calling…to care for the poor, the hungry, the naked, the disenfranchised, and the forgotten. For Christ said: “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last…whatever you do for the least of my brethren you do unto me.”
Yesterday I witnessed once again the “theatre” of the Catholic Church. The red capes…the white smoke…the Swiss Guard…the Sistine Chapel…the unbreakable oath of silence that kept the identity of the new Bishop of Rome secret until he stepped out onto that balcony. The “bells and smells” of the Catholic Church. Nobody does pomp and circumstance like the Vatican.
But the real Catholic Church was not on that balcony or behind the closed doors of the Sistine Chapel. I could see the real Catholic Church in the faces down below in St. Peter’s Square, huddled together for hours in the rain. White, black, brown, yellow…Poles, Spaniards, Italians, Americans…workers, business owners, the poor, the infirmed, young and old…people like me…all waiting, hoping for a leader who will return our beloved church to the path Christ himself told us to follow.
The Conclave of Cardinals elected a new Pope. Habemus Papam! Jorge Mario Bergoglio is from Argentina…the first South American to lead the church. He has chosen the name Francis…the first to do so. He is also the first Jesuit to be elected Pope.
We do not know this man. We do know that his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, was said to have had a vision where Christ appeared before this well to do man of means and told him to set aside his worldly goods and “…rebuild my church.” We do know that the Jesuit Order is all about social justice and caring for the poor and downtrodden.
We also know that Jorge Mario Bergoglio is said to be a very humble man of simple means. We know that as Cardinal of Buenos Aires he shunned the trappings of his position. He chose to live in a simple apartment rather than reside in the lavish residence of his predecessors. He cooks for himself and rides the public tram to work. He is often seen walking among the masses in Buenos Aires caring for the sick and giving comfort to the needy.
His humility was in evidence during his first public appearance as Pope Francis I. Instead of giving a long winded speech and blessing the crowd he first thanked them for their welcome and then asked that they take a moment to pray silently for HIM. He then bowed his head in submission as the crowd prayed over him. It has been reported by those present that you could hear a pin drop among the 150,000 in attendance.
Pope Francis will have a difficult task ahead. I will be watching to see if he cleans up the corruption, removes those involved in the sex abuse scandal and turns them over to the authorities and returns the Church to its core values.
For too long the church hierarchy has been admonishing those who have chosen to leave. They blamed the church’s dwindling attendance and declining advocacy on the loose morals encouraged by a corrupt society. In fact it is the hypocrisy and scandalous behavior of the hierarchy itself that has caused the people to lose faith…not in God but in the institution. The church hierarchy needs to look itself in the mirror. The faithful have not left the church…for they ARE the Church. It is the Church hierarchy that has turned its back on the faithful.
Will Pope Francis I be the guy who can return the church to its rightful path? I wish I knew. I hope so.Having a humble Jesuit named Francis at the helm is a good start.