Pope Fran­cis is not an ano­maly

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY JIM ROUMELL The writer lives in Chevy Chase.

As a Catholic, I’ve been sur­prised by how novel Pope Fran­cis ap­pears to so many non-Catholics, and per­haps to many who prac­tice the faith as well. Fran­cis is com­pas­sion­ate and un­der­stands that there is no peace with­out jus­tice. He em­bod­ies Christ-like val­ues of com­fort over judg­ment, kind­ness over ridicule and hu­mil­ity over pomp. His life is his wor­ship. In other words, Fran­cis is like so many Catholic priests who have toiled through­out the world, day in and day out, for cen­turies.

Over the years, I’ve felt the gen­uine puz­zle­ment of friends who won­der what in the world I’m do­ing sub­scrib­ing to a faith that doesn’t be­lieve in the use of con­tra­cep­tion in AIDS-plagued Africa and the rights of women as equal part­ners in faith and whose power struc­ture pro­tected pe­dophile priests. In fact, I’ve of­ten been deeply puz­zled my­self and, par­tic­u­larly as the church’s sex-abuse scan­dals played out, I’ve won­dered why I re­main in this church. The cor­rup­tion, the stench of coverup and the self-pre­serv­ing in­stincts of one more sick worldly in­sti­tu­tion were some­times all I could bear. But I al­ways re­turned to the church’s com­mit­ment to the poor, the hun­gry and the sick. Per­haps no in­sti­tu­tion in the history of the world has mo­ti­vated more peo­ple to live self­less lives of ser­vice ad­min­is­ter­ing to such peo­ple. The out­casts from Kolkata, In­dia, to Chicago have had the church on their side. Where would the world’s need­i­est be with­out the church?

The Catholic Church feeds and clothes more peo­ple, vis­its more pris­on­ers and takes care of more sick peo­ple than any other non­govern­men­tal in­sti­tu­tion in the world. Catholic Char­i­ties chap­ters through­out the United States feed our na­tion’s poor ev­ery day. Mother Teresa’s Mis­sion­ar­ies of Char­ity, founded in 1950, con­tin­ues its work pro­vid­ing dig­nity to the dy­ing of Kolkata and has grown to 145 sim­i­lar care cen­ters around the world, mak­ing good on Mother Teresa’s prom­ise of pro­vid­ing “whole­hearted free ser­vice to the poor­est of the poor.” The cat­e­chism of the Catholic Church has long en­shrined Je­sus’s ad­mo­ni­tion to care for the “least ofmy broth­ers,” and the church has long an­swered that call in the fab­ric of its most sa­cred tra­di­tions. Un­like so many politi­cians, the church has never blamed the poor for be­ing poor.

As a boy, I loved re­ceiv­ing the Mary­knoll mis­sions mag­a­zine show­ing smil­ing priests and nuns liv­ing in ru­ral ar­eas in Third World coun­tries. Like many sim­i­lar Catholic or­ders, Mary­knollers have long ar­ranged their lives around Chris­tian ac­tion in the field. As the church has un­der­gone well-de­served scru­tiny for its many scan­dals in re­cent years, thou­sands of priests and nuns con­tin­ued to do the Lord’s work of bring­ing love, hope, food, medicine, cloth­ing and hous­ing to a hurt­ing world, of­ten while be­ing viewed with de­ri­sion and sus­pi­cion. This is a peren­ni­ally un­der­re­ported story. Fran­cis is sim­ply re­mind­ing peo­ple of a unique in­sti­tu­tion that has been in front of their eyes all along.

In 1980, as a 19-year-old, I tasted a morsel of this Catholic com­mit­ment when I signed up to work one sum­mer on Glen­mary’s Peo­ple Farm, which was founded in 1970 in ru­ral Ap­palachia and run by Glen­mar­ian Fa­ther Jerry Dorn. Glen­mary Home Mis­sion­ers was cre­ated in 1939 to serve the ru­ral poor in the Amer­i­can South, build­ing homes, help­ing to harvest crops and sup­ply­ing food and love with­out ask­ing for any­thing in re­turn. Jerry and I re­mained friends un­til his pass­ing last year. Over many years in busi­ness, I’ve met lots of peo­ple with much more power, money and pres­tige, but Jerry re­mains the most re­mark­able, in­ter­est­ing and self­less man I’ve ever known. His con­vic­tions, kind­ness and un­shak­able faith in Je­sus and in God’s love ring in my ears and will likely do so un­til I die.

Jerry and I never spoke about abor­tion. He cer­tainly never would have in­ter­preted his Chris­tian pur­pose as fight­ing gay rights. There were sim­ply too many sick, lonely and home­less peo­ple in need of our help. And for Catholics, so­cial jus­tice is not an op­tion, it is a Gospel im­per­a­tive. As Car­di­nal Jorge Mario Ber­goglio said, be­fore he be­came Pope Fran­cis, “The op­tion for the poor comes from the first cen­turies of Chris­tian­ity. It is the Gospel it­self.” Je­sus never spoke of con­tra­cep­tion, abor­tion or gay mar­riage, but he spoke in­ces­santly about our obli­ga­tion to the poor and pow­er­less.

In an age when many view Chris­tian­ity through the lens of rich TV preach­ers who live large, the Catholic priest stands apart and pur­sues a dif­fer­ent path. Je­sus was once ap­proached by aman­who asked what he must do to en­ter the king­dom of heaven, and he told him sim­ply: “Fol­low the Com­mand­ments.” But when the man said he wanted to do more, Je­sus said that, if he were so in­clined, he could give all of his be­long­ings to the poor, live the Gospel and spread its mes­sage. Priests are the men who are so in­clined.

Pope Fran­cis is not an ano­maly; the church has been filled with such men through­out history. What is unique is that a com­mon priest toil­ing in the hin­ter­lands as­cended to such power. Fran­cis is cer­tainly gifted in many im­por­tant ways, but how he imag­ines his faith and lives his life is not so un­com­mon among Catholic priests the world over.

Show me an in­sti­tu­tion that has lasted for 2,000 years, and I will show you one that strug­gles with dark­ness, de­ceit and treach­ery. What is amaz­ing is that the light of the Gospels still shines through to keep so many of us in the fold. That is be­cause of Fran­cis, Jerry and so many priests like them.

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