The religious world is a buzz this week after the election of a new pope. Both within the Catholic church, the Protestants, and even the non-Christian world are hopeful for what type of Christian leadership this man will bring.
All of this brought me back to 1980 when I received communion in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa from Pope John Paul II. There were a lot of memories of that day, from the long walk from our house to Living History Farms just outside Des Moines, Iowa with my mother, two brothers, and a red wagon. We watched the Papal Helicopter land in the sea of seemingly millions of people (I was only 5 ½ at the time). We sat on our blanket and enjoyed the mass; mostly my brothers and I were fighting and playing around as little boys do, but when it came time for communion WE ALL GOT TO TAKE IT!!! We did not even get to take communion at church (that is another story).
When the host was brought out to the crowds, the young priest who was serving our section handed out communion saying that in the spirit of ecumenism the Pope wanted all to partake that day. To be honest, I cannot remember a word said and many other memories are vague, but I remember that, and I remember the grace, compassion, and welcome of that young priest. It was pretty cool, and I have to say that I always looked to John Paul as an important person; well, maybe not in his later years. However, when he was young and focused on evangelizing the young, you cannot underestimate the power of his message.
For my mother, the event was not to be blessed by someone closer to God then she was; it was to participate in a time of faith and spiritual growth. In the Protestant church, we do not look to the Pope as anything more than another person who is seeking to understand what is meant to be faithful. In the reformation, much of what the reformers were fighting was not the inherent evil of the Catholic Church; rather it was the shameless corruption of an organization corrupted by power and greed.
That was highlighted within a Papal figure that went so far as to sell people a way out of hell. These tickets to heaven were called indulgences. The practice of selling indulgences has been long abandoned within the Catholic tradition, but the symbolism of that corruption was strong. In fact, when looking at the history of the Pope and the reformation, one of the key aspects is that ultimate, unchecked power will both destroy and tear down even the best of people.
Interestingly, this Pope is starting at a place of humility. Reports are that he even paid his bill when he checked out of his hotel room the other day. Who knows what will happen within the Catholic Church, and to some Protestants, there is a seeming question of who cares; to some there is even a hope for the implosion of that tradition. Nevertheless, the reality is that when one part of the body of Christ suffers, we all feel it.
I wish the Pope lots of good will and hope that he can speak to a global generation that has been lost to ambition, war, and power. As a Jesuit, an order that is actually very similar to the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition in theological essentials, we know that he will be different from those who came before him. We also know, from what he has already said that Pope Francis will be approaching the role of Pope as a servant leader. All which is good.
However, as with any leader, we will pray that he does not let power corrupt the ministry that he has been called to, and that we might learn something from the witness that he gives. While we do not accept the Pope as the Vicar of Christ, we do want a strong message and good example of Christ within the figure, since that is the most visible Christian in the world. We can hope that he models a Christ-like compassion, and a fervent call for all to be comfortable and proud to be Christians of all walks.
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen