Not to say that there aren’t many good things about our astonishing new Pontiff, but this is one really Good Thing that has made a difference in my scrawny little neck of the woods….
I like to tell people that central Virginia may not be the buckle of the Bible Belt, but folks in this area are certainly doing their fair share to hold up the pants of Protestantism! This Good Thing about Pope Francis is in relationship to the Evangelical population in my area, as well as across the country.
They have noticed him.
That may not sound like much to you, but let me explain. I wrote a post last year about the sad fact that, as an Evangelical, I managed to ignore nearly the entire pontificate of Blessed John Paul II. He was elected when I was in college, so it’s not as if I wasn’t old enough to know what was going on. I was unimpressed. So the Catholics have got a new pope. Big whoop.
I moved to (West) Germany. While I was living there, two well-known figures were the targets of assassination attempts: Ronald Reagan and John Paul II. Believe me, I was far more concerned about Reagan. I don’t recall even praying for the pope’s recovery. I managed to ignore my way through John Paul’s pontificate, until I by the grace of God began to investigate the teachings of the Church. Only then did that dear man become someone I was interested in. I entered the Church in 2003; he left us in 2005.
I know that I as a Protestant was not alone in this folly, for Marcus Grodi, founder of the Coming Home Network, told a similar story of his Protestant indifference to the pope. He was living in Boston in 1979 when John Paul II paid the city a visit.
On one particular day, I was off of work and looking forward to relaxing in front of the television and later a long jog along the Charles River. In passing I had heard and read that Boston was being granted the great “privilege” of a visit by the new Catholic pope, John Paul II. The Boston Globe, in my view, had wasted far too many pages discussing the papal visit —articles which, of course, I’d never read.
And yes indeed, as the day progressed, the crowds came. Thousands of people filled the street and the Garden, but I didn’t so much as poke my head out the door. Why should I? Why should I have any more interest in a Catholic pope than if, say, the head of the Unification Church were passing by? And besides, I hate crowds.
So, I escaped by the alley door for an afternoon jog along the Charles, “far from the madding crowd”.
Grodi was that close to Blessed John Paul, but didn’t pay any attention to the papal visit because… well, because Grodi at that time was Protestant and just couldn’t be bothered. He missed John Paul’s impassioned “Follow Christ” discourse that day, because he just didn’t care. He had more important things to attend to. Yet, had he bothered, had he taken the time to listen, Grodi would have heard words decidedly “Evangelical” in their import, as the pope challenged Christians and indeed the world to follow the Savior!
Grodi wasn’t listening.
Neither was I.
Why couldn’t John Paul II get through to him, or to me?
It has been said that Evangelicals are the teenagers of Christianity. They are loud and full of energy. They think that their ideas are great, and yours are stupid. Their first reaction to anything foreign to their belief system is “This is stupid.” They know everything. You can’t tell them anything, because they’re sure they already know what you’re going to say. When you talk, their brains slide into sleep mode and their eyes glaze over. Especially if you are Catholic.
Double especially if you are the pope.
Yet, they are hearing Pope Francis, and they are reacting to him.
The difference? How can they hear him??
They can hear him because he’s not communicating with them in words, but in deeds.
When Evangelicals see some old guy come out on that balcony at St. Peter’s wearing the red cape and embroidered papal stole, they already know what the deal is. They think, “I’ve got his number. This is the same-old-papal-same-old.” And in the three seconds it takes to think that, they write him off. That’s all the chance the pope gets to win a hearing with them – three seconds. First impressions are all that count. And on March 13th, 2013, leaping through that three-second window of Evangelical opportunity came Francis.
He has managed to keep his foot in that window, too, so to speak, by doing what Evangelicals don’t expect him to do. When he kept his rooms in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, when he got out of the popemobile to bless pilgrims, when he went to prison to wash feet, Evangelicals kept listening. Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, actually felt it necessary early on to remind Baptists of the evils of the papacy and of Catholicism in general, something which wouldn’t really be necessary if Baptists weren’t paying any attention at all to this new pope.
Perhaps Dr. Mohler remembers how Mother Teresa snuck in under the anti-Catholic radar in the same fashion. This does not guarantee success (when she died, I was told by an Evangelical friend that it was doubtful that she went to Heaven, seeing as how she was trusting in her works instead of in Jesus), but it is a good start to gain an opportunity for a hearing. I believe many Evangelicals who formerly doubted that Catholics were really Christians may have changed their thinking because of Blessed Teresa. I hope so, anyway.
So, as I said, one Really Good Thing about our new pope.
You’ll hear the predictable comments from Evangelicals about Pope Francis having “learned from Protestantism” when he does what he does. Not understanding Catholicism, and having been taught that Catholics do not know Christ, many Protestants are stymied by words or actions that originate with Catholics but resonate in the hearts of the descendants of the Reformers. They will imagine that they like Francis because he is one step closer than other popes to toning down Catholic doctrines and bringing them into conformity with Protestant theology. In the “First Thoughts” column of First Things Magazine, deputy editor Matthew Schmitz deftly tweaks that notion back to rights:
Protestants see one of their own in the new pope, which might prompt a Catholic to say that much of what we see as Protestant can be found more fully realized and rightly oriented in the heart of the Church.
Yes, indeed. May God use Pope Francis to help Evangelicals realize just that.
On the memorial of St. George
Deo omnis gloria!
Photo credit: Photo derived from “Pope Francis with Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner,” attribution presidencia.gov.ar