Pope Francis has left the country. Commentators will spend a lot of energy talking about what his visit to the US meant, what changes might happen, and what’s next. The pope returns to the Vatican to prepare for a synod of bishops on the family that is expected to be a significant event that will make its own headlines. Most normal people will go back to their regularly scheduled programming.
But before you do, let me make a couple of points that may be relevant to you. I saw many ex-Catholics and non-Catholics attracted to this pope’s spirit – his message of love, mercy, Grace, and concern for the vulnerable, through his heavily accented words but far more through his clear actions. I heard lots of versions of the same thing: “I’m not/no longer/never considered being Catholic, but I’m impressed by this guy.” And here’s what I would point out:
- He was made this way by his faith within this Church. Before his visit, Time did an excellent story on then-Father Bergoglio’s transformative moment, when his strong-willed divisiveness led to his exile from leadership, which built his new, humble, loving character. It was prayer that shaped him, but prayer grounded in a religious order and Church to whom he committed himself in obedience. When his vision and style led to conflict with others in his order, he didn’t write them off or plot their takedown. He obeyed them, and in that process of putting his own will beneath a larger Church he became the man you were attracted to.
- He is attractive not only because he embodies character traits you think all leaders should have, but also because those are traits you wish you had more of, too. As evangelical pastor Kyle Idelman spells out in his book not a fan., living a spiritually informed life isn’t something we are meant to watch; it’s a participatory sport we are meant to live. Whether it’s Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, or your neighbor down the street, when you see someone living in peace with themselves, their God, and their world, it’s a reminder that that should be you.
- You won’t get there on your own, and it’s the jerks that help you the most. In our consumer society, we are used to being choosy, and Gen Xers are particularly wired to think you are on your own. We can look at any faith, and any institution, and find doctrine we don’t agree with, history we wouldn’t embrace, and people we would rather not associate with. And that’s part of the point. By encountering other people who are as imperfect as we are but in maddeningly different ways, we learn that true love doesn’t always mean true like. By struggling to understand a doctrine that just doesn’t make sense to us, we learn a lot more about what our own hidden agenda might be, and we come to value a perspective that isn’t naturally our own. I would not blame anyone who left the Catholic faith during the scandals of recent years, but by sticking around I have shared the pain of family betrayal and hoped for rebirth, and that has made me a more compassionate person.
To my non-Catholic friends intrigued by the pope, I’d say come closer. You will find bishops, priests, and fellow travelers who are as inspiring as Francis in their own ways (and yes, you will also still find some jerks). If you are more at home with another faith tradition you’ve drifted from, give it another look with fresh eyes. But pick a team and get in the game. That guy in white you saw in the Fiat? He’s not so different from you, other than his life of commitment to his faith and his church.
And to my Catholic friends, I’d say remember. Remember that the core of our faith, that which attracted these people to Francis, is what we should lead with: love, mercy, peace, humility, joy. Save the rules, apologetics, and traditions and devotions for later in the relationship.