Romero, in case you don’t know, was a Catholic priest in El Salvador who was shot to death in 1980 while saying Mass. What made Romero a hero to many made him an enemy to others: his solidarity with Latin America’s poor and his opposition to human rights abuses. Up until now, Romero’s beautification had stalled over concerns with his ‘liberation theology.’
Liberation theology, is a discipline within theology that is controversial only to those (Glenn Beck) who don’t know anything about theology- but that’s a post for another day.
When I heard the news about Romero, my initial gut reaction was to say:
‘Pope Francis has totally given me a bad case of Catholic-envy.’
It’s true; he has.
And judging by the amount of praise in Protestant journals, such as Christianity Today, I’m not alone.
From the news that Francis refuses to live in the papal mansion to his shunning elaborate vestments to breaking ‘tradition’ when it comes to Holy Thursday foot-washing, the new bishop of Rome seems to possess the one thing that’s almost extinct in our media-saturated world: authenticity.
Where Catholics get a real-deal, legit Jesus-follower as the global face of their tradition, Protestants get what…? Who…?
Joel Osteen? Blegh. Franklin Graham? Lord, I hope not.
The frenzied excitement that each Pope Francis story generates in the press and among the public bears out at least 3 lessons from which Protestants, it seems to me, can learn.
#1: It’s About Jesus
While the ‘Nones’ may be on the rise and while the ranks of the ‘religiously unaffiliated’ swell, people are still- stubbornly so- captivated by Jesus. There’s still plenty of people in the world interested in how a crucified Jewish messiah could so haunt the world still that he produces someone like Francis. Someone whose whole life seems conformed to replicating as closely as possible the life of Christ- just like the Francis of the pope’s namesake.
The curiosity piqued by Francis demonstrates, I think, that though the ‘Nones’ are opting out of institutional Christianity (Institutionanity), they’re not necessarily writing Jesus off.
Mainsideline Protestantism, like United Methodism, is in decline, and with such decline the temptation towards institutional preservation increases in inverse proportion. Too often in the guise of ‘saving souls’ we’re really just trying to save our little corner of organized religion.
I think the appeal of Francis shows the dangers in such temptation. People aren’t interested in institutions, but they are- still- interested in Jesus. Part of the appeal of Francis is that he clearly cares more about Jesus than he does with the institution called Church.
#2: It’s About the Poor
Even non-Christians know in their bones that ours is a faith that was intended to be of the poor, by the poor, for the poor.
That’s the wisdom of liberation theology: our scripture is best understood read from the perspective of the poor.
Somewhere along the way many of us have lost the clarity of Jesus’ message. The Vatican has its opulence, sure, but we Protestants are no better. We have our prosperity preachers on TV who fly around in their personal jets (which Jesus blessed them with) and we have others who are content to do charity (Operation Christmas Child) without ever, in Jesus’ name, addressing the systemic causes of poverty. And then there are the rest of us (me: guilty) who think of ‘serving the poor’ as one church activity among other, equally urgent, ministries.
To the extent that we forget that Jesus’ Gospel was intended to be ‘good news for the poor’ ours will always be a Gospel with a hole in it.
I think so many have praised Francis’ declaration that the Church should be a Church in solidarity with the poor because they know, if just intuitively, that that’s exactly who we should be.
Because that’s who Jesus was.
#3: It’s About Integrity
Pope Francis is a walking, talking 21st century illustration of Marshall McLuhan’s maxim:
‘the medium is the message.’
Our mode has to match our message.
In other words: We’ve got to walk the walk if we’re going to talk the talk.
Far be it from me to criticize Joel Osteen but most people know there’s a dissonance between an affluent peddler of the Gospel and the one who initially proclaimed that Gospel. That Francis seems so refreshing a Christian leader is but an indication of how hungry the world is for people whose character corresponds and compliments their confession of faith.
As Paul says in Corinthians, we are ourselves like letters sent by Christ to a watching world. And none of the letters that made their way into the New Testament can undo the damage done by you or me, in our daily lives, when we make the love of Christ illegible or unintelligible.