Pope Francis is not an anomaly
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.