This will probably come as no surprise, but I’m a fan of Pope Francis.
A big fan.
I’m under no illusions that he isn’t without his flaws, but when it comes to the Christian faith and in particular being Christ-like he just seems to get it, probably more than any other major Christian leader I know.
From rejecting the luxurious papal apartment to washing the feet of a Muslim female inmate to his theology that seems more concerned with loving the poor and defending the oppressed than drawing lines of exclusion to that time last week when he put a kid on the papal seat during a talk at St. Peter’s or just the other day when he embraced and kissed a man stricken with a disfiguring skin disease Pope Francis never ceases to wow me and, more often than not, bring a few tears to my eyes.
I’m not Roman Catholic, but he’s the sort of leader I would gladly follow, the kind of Christ-like example I want to follow.
But incarnated grace aside, the thing that’s really shocked me the most about Pope Francis is the response he’s received from those outside the faith.
And I don’t just mean non-Catholics.
I mean those of entirely different religious traditions, but especially those with no religious affiliation at all and those who oppose religion altogether.
If you spend enough time on the internet, you can just about predict the sorts of comments that will appear under religious news stories, particularly stories about the Roman Catholic church. To say the comments are typically not kind would be an understatement. Even calling them irrationally hateful doesn’t quite capture the vitriol spewed in those comment sections.
Which is why I’ve been so blown away by the comments left on stories about Pope Francis.
I expected to find cheap shots about the child abuse scandal, dismissals of his actions as a PR stunt, or at least a bizarre rant about how helping the poor is actually evil.
But I’ve found almost none of that. And trust me I’ve tried to find it.
I winced in fear the first time I scrolled down to the comments section under a Pope Francis story that really moved me, knowing the internet trolls would be there waiting to gleefully destroy my happiness. But they weren’t there. So I kept scrolling. And still nothing. Then I went to another site thinking surely they’ve got to be hiding out over there. But they were virtually nowhere to be found.
Instead, over and over again I keep finding comments like this….
“I’m not Catholic, but man do I love this Pope!” (Buzzfeed)
“Agreed. I’m a Recovered Catholic, born-again pagan- but this is one cool dude!” (Buzzfeed)
“I’m an atheist, but I am really starting to like Pope Francis. He really seems like he understands that the church should be focusing on doing what Jesus said- helping the poor, needy and undesirables. If more Christians would actually live their life like this- Christianity wouldn’t get such a bad reputation. I truly hope Pope Francis continues on this path. I know he will do great things in his time for the church.” (Huffington Post)
“Though I am not Catholic or even religious, my respect for Pope Francis continues to grow. He strikes me as a true man of Christ.” (Yahoo)
“Makes me want to rethink my atheism. What a kind, good hearted, loving human this pope is.” (Yahoo)
“This Pope is crushing it. I’m an atheist from a very religious family, but I’m so pleased about some of Pope Francis’ actions and stances. He gets it, and the church needs it.” (CNN)
“I have long held a grudge against the Catholic Church (and the Christian faith) for the hypocrisy and intolerance so often exhibited by its practitioners. In no time in my life have I liked a Pope or felt that they embodied what Christians and Catholics proclaim is the essence of their faith. That is, until Pope Francis. I’m thrilled to finally see a religious leader so full of love and compassion. Though I am not Catholic, I truly believe that Pope Francis is a wonderful human being and actually deserves the respect he is given.” (Washington Post)
“I am certainly no fan of the RCC and there is a lot of work they need to do in order to clean up their act, but this pope? Is a class act. Shine on, Your Eminence, shine on.” (Huffington Post)
Now, I’m not dumb. Well, at least not that dumb. I’m well aware of the fact that there are some not so nice comments out there in these comment sections too, but they’re usually hard to find and even when you do find them, they’re lacking the usual sting you expect to find.
As someone (a blogger) who spends an absurd amount of time on the internet and an equally absurd amount of time reading through comments, I’m telling you this is a big deal. I’ve never seen anything like it and I don’t think I’m likely to see such a near universal outpouring of love, support, open-mindedness, acceptance, and grace again anytime soon – if ever.
That’s just not the way the internet works. The internet breeds cynicism and hate. It’s like it’s in its DNA. Even in the most warm-hearted stories you’ll find somebody making a cynical, hateful, or smartass remark just because they can.
But with Pope Francis it’s just not there and its absence is incredible.
Maybe even more incredible is the fact that Pope Francis hasn’t just silenced his critics.
He’s won them over.
Which makes me really hopeful.
Not hopeful that everyone is suddenly going to see the light and become Christians. I’m just hopeful that maybe, just maybe some old wounds can begin to heal, wounds that too often the church has inflicted. And if that can begin to happen, then maybe, just maybe Pope Francis’ example and the goodwill he’s engendering will allow us all, both Christian and atheist, agnostic and Catholic, to beat our swords into ploughshares and find a way to coexist peacefully.
Which is why I really, really hope other Christian leaders, especially the celebrity pastor kind who wield enormous influence among Protestants, are taking note of Pope Francis and the response he’s receiving.
As a Church we lose so much sleep over millennials leaving and our inability to reach those outside our community of faith, particularly those who are antagonistic towards religion. So, we create elaborate programs. And spend fortunes on buildings and worship bands and stage lighting and multimedia experiences. And when that doesn’t work we try hitting people with some good ole “turn or burn,” God hates you and you’re going to hell preaching.
But it’s not working.
People are leaving in droves despite our fancy graphics and despite our best efforts to literally scare the hell out of them.
And yet here is this humble man from Argentina who doesn’t seem to care at all about outreach programs or marketing campaigns or cutting edge worship. He’s shunned the luxury house that came with his celebrity status, stopped battling over theological issues that aren’t worth fighting over, and instead of trying to scare people into heaven with words about God’s wrath, he’s chosen to embody God’s love to the least of these with his actions.
And the world is loving it. Young and old, he’s being embraced everywhere he goes. Even those who have no love whatsoever for religion, love this man and what he is doing.
As the Church, we would describe it this way, “They’re loving the incarnated love and grace of Christ unfold before their eyes.”
Which means in his simple humility and compassionate servitude, Pope Francis is succeeding where our best programming and marketing efforts have failed – he’s reaching those who don’t want to be reached.
So pastors, if you’re out there and you’re listening and you really care about reaching the people in your own community, stop listening to the ministry gurus tell you how to grow your church. Stop funneling money into the latest fad program or worship trend. Stop trying to be like the celebrity megachurch pastor you follow online and start trying to be more like Pope Francis.
If nothing else, it’s cheaper and the results speak for themselves.
But more importantly, it’s a much more Christ-like way of leading and living than most of us have seen in a very, very long time. The kind of example the Church needs now maybe more than ever. The kind of example all of us need to embody whether we’re the pope or a pastor or just somebody sitting in the pews.
As Pope Francis seems to be reminding us each and every day, if Christianity is going to have any credibility it has to be to lived out, not just talked about.
He’s doing a lot to restore some of that credibility.
I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Grace and peace,
UPDATE: I added links to where I found those quotes. However, because so many new comments were coming in on the post where I found them I couldn’t find some of the original quotes. So, I switched out a couple for similar quotes just for the sake of people being able to see where I found them. Hope that helps.