Pope Francis is quite the media darling. He was recently named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, but that simply acknowledges what many media-watchers already know: Pope Francis is a man on the move, and everyone wants to hear what he’s up to.
Elected last March, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who chose the papal name Francis (after St. Francis of Assisi) has been in office for less than a year. He has well over 3 million followers on Twitter, almost 500,000 Likes on his Facebook page, and major news outlets report almost daily on his activities. And there’s plenty to report. He has taken numerous steps to reform the church’s administration. He appointed eight cardinals from around the world to address church government reform. He established a commission to advise him on dealing with priests guilty of pedophilia and counseling the victims of clerical sexual abuse. He suspended Germany’s “bishop of bling” for…shall we say…losing his pastoral way. He replaced a conservative American cardinal, who wanted to withhold communion from pro-choice parishioners, with a more moderate one on the Congregation for Bishops. Most recently, he announced that senior members of the Holy See’s governing body, the Roman Curia, will now hear confession on a regular basis. Pope Francis is also a soccer fan, he started a cricket team, and he’s apparently a proponent of breastfeeding.
All these papal doings are regularly broadcast to a global audience. What hasn’t been reported is the effect Pope Francis has had on my Facebook newsfeed, which routinely displays memes and news links about the Bishop of Rome. My posting friends also attach comments like “I love this guy,” “Check this out,” and “I’m starting to believe in this man.” I attended a Catholic high school, so I have a fair number of Catholic friends on Facebook, but they aren’t the ones giving props to the Supreme Pontiff. Nearly all the posts in my newsfeed are from people who are definitely not Catholic. In fact, most of them would probably not even claim to be Christian. They do not accept Christ as their personal savior, and they do not approve of Catholic Church teachings/policies on abortion, female priests, birth control, celibacy, or gay marriage. So why are they so infatuated?
I think the answer is pretty simple. Pope Francis lives love. He washes the feet of male and female inmates at a juvenile detention center on Holy Thursday. He hugs those who are disfigured. He embraces, both literally and figuratively, those with disabilities. He blesses children with cancer and reminds them of the good they bring to the church. He promises to baptize the infant of an unmarried woman if she fails to find another priest willing to do it. And, he supposedly sneaks out of the Vatican at night to distribute money to the poor.
The lesson I draw from my atheist, Buddhist, Jewish, progressive Christian, and “spiritual” Facebook friends is that many people in the world today are less interested in the specifics of what you believe and more interested in the grace with which you live. Going to church every Sunday, lighting menorahs, celebrating the wheel of the year, and fasting for the month of Ramadan means nothing if it doesn’t translate into a loving, compassionate life.
And that’s why we are dedicated to the interfaith education of kids. I am not a secular humanist. I believe in a divine presence, but I also believe that it is all too easy to become separated from that presence. Religious belief, spiritual traditions, and sacred ritual can help us reconnect to all that is sacred, but it has to be a practice that speaks to us. The Pope does this through the teachings and customs of the Catholic Church – an approach that certainly doesn’t work for everyone.
Each of us must find our own path to the divine. For some, the path they were exposed to as a child works great. Others find it necessary to explore more broadly. Many are still searching. Routes to the divine are plentiful, and at this point in human history, that bounty is more accessible than ever. Numerous ancient texts and teachings have been translated into English. You Tube videos show you how to pray, chant, dance ecstatically, or meditate. Nearly every church, synagogue, temple, and mosque has a web site listing its public services.
So what are you afraid of? Seek the divine. Connect with all that is sacred. And get your kids involved. They have their own religious/spiritual trail to blaze, and they need to know they have choices. Begin now to live a life of love, compassion, peace, and kindness. If the Pope can do it, with the entire world watching, surely you can, too.
Internet searches will readily produce a variety of articles on all the events mentioned above. Here are a few to get you started.