by Raj Attiken, September 30, 2015: The attention that Pope Francis received from Americans last week was simply staggering. By any and all standards, the Pope “stole the show” wherever he went during his six-day visit to the United States that ended on Sunday. Even the U.S. presidential candidates could not stir up a circus (as some have been good at doing in recent weeks) big or loud enough to draw media attention away from the pope. Pope Francis not only made history (first pope to address the United States Congress); he also made an abundance of impressions. It is about those impressions that I ruminate here.
Let me, at the outset, offer two disclosures: First, I have read the book The Great Controversy; more importantly, I have – and do — read the Bible, including the books of Daniel and Revelation. I have also read what respected Adventist theologians have written about the books of Daniel and Revelation. I am aware of the end-of-time scenarios that Adventists generally paint, and how the Roman Catholic Church is said to figure in those scenarios.
Second, when I watched the pope on television this past week, I did not see a “Holy Father,” “His Holiness,” or the “Vicar of Christ”; the voice I heard was not the “voice of St. Peter.” Instead, I saw and heard a 78-year old Argentinian man – a “gentle man” – who, for most of his life, was known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The impressions I formed, therefore, are about a man who is the head of a 1.2 billion-member church and about how he presented himself to the masses who watched him.
For a man who occupies an office that is steeped in pomp and circumstance, form and ritual, ornate regalia and colorful coats-of-arms, Pope Francis conveyed a near-irresistible power of humility and simplicity. In a society that is cynical about religious claims, the pope embodied a message of authenticity and transparency that appealed even to some of the most skeptical. Some described him as charismatic; others saw in him an affable meekness and unpretentiousness.
Pope Francis performed his formal duties in each setting with thoughtful and serious deliberation. But it was his interaction with people – young and old – that seemed to energize and delight him. His interactions with children, the disadvantaged, and the disabled, particularly, revealed his comfort in being in their presence and his joy in serving them. He claimed that in them he saw the face of Jesus. The overwhelming response of the crowds to Pope Francis was a striking revelation that for most people, love, piety, compassion and mercy trumps doctrine. These were also frequent themes in the pope’s speeches.
Throughout his visit, Pope Francis illustrated the universal appeal of a vision and mission to care for the poor, the dispossessed, and the marginalized. He shone the spotlight on the Christian’s calling to care for the most vulnerable. The call to the practice of social justice was a repeated theme, something Francis has been known to advocate for decades. He made numerous appeals for treating people with dignity, respect, and equality, and for people to contribute their efforts for the common good.
The pope, quietly and without much fanfare, gave witness to his respect for all people of all faiths. In recognition of the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews, the pope did not schedule any public appointment on the evening he arrived in Washington, D.C. Then, in an unscripted moment during his address at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Thursday night, he wished Muslims a happy Eid, the Festival of Sacrifice, and offered sympathy for the hundreds of Hajj pilgrims who died in a stampede in Mecca. His invitational and winsome style appealed to people of all faiths and perhaps no faith.
Pope Francis gave masterful display to the truth that there are ways to effectively talk about divisive issues without alienating people who are on one or the other side of the issue. In his carefully-nuanced speech before the United States Congress on September 24, the pope addressed several issues such as immigration, the sanctity of life, and climate change, over which many in the country and in the Congress are divided in their opinions. Yet, he did it in a disarming manner that did not diminish those who didn’t agree with his positions. He made no stump speeches, demanding submission with the power of his arguments. Inclusivity and respect for all peoples were common themes in the pope’s presentations. When he talked about globalization, he specifically highlighted the danger of attempting to coerce uniformity among all people, cultures, and situations.
The pope did not signal any potential changes to doctrine or dogma in the Catholic Church. His interests, it seemed, was not to change the doctrines of the church but to change its focus. He made some passing appeals to “natural law” as the basis for moral truth and in support of “the natural difference between men and women, and absolute respect for life in all its states and dimensions.” This “moral law,” he claimed, is “written into human nature itself.” Although he appeared to give sincere recognition and appreciation for the role of women in the religious functions of the church, his complete silence regarding women being excluded from the Catholic priesthood through ordination did not go unnoticed.
A part of Pope Francis’ appeal has been his anti-institutional image. He has demonstrated an uncanny willingness to disregard rules and to challenge entrenched interests. Some Catholics wonder if Francis’ progressive views truly represent the Catholic faith. It is yet to be seen whether Francis’ popularity will translate into revival and reformation within the Roman Catholic Church. Or into increased church membership. Many are skeptical. In the real world, personalities tend to be more popular than institutions.
Despite the huge crowds and the massive media attention, the pope did not convey anything – either through words or witness – that wasn’t known before. The lessons he presented were not new or original. However, by saying what he said, and presenting himself as he did, Francis drew attention to the fact that the life and words of religious people and religious leaders have enormous power to change the world. Also that the qualities of humility, authenticity, simplicity, inclusivity, respect, dignity, love, and mercy are available to all of God’s children.
The Adventist Church has entered a period when we are not doing too well in some of the areas that Francis highlighted in his many speeches. In that sense, perhaps his messages were for us, too. I realize that some Adventists may not be able to look beyond the fact that the pope is Catholic. But for others, the pope may have presented a timely challenge to embody the values of Jesus, especially in regard to loving the least among us. For Adventist leaders at this particular time the message to stand up for human dignity, equality, inclusivity, and justice may be most appropriate. These are some things that Adventists can be challenged to do better in – even by a pope! Regardless of our impressions of Pope Francis, there is at least one way in which Adventists can respond to him. The pope concluded almost every public presentation with the request, “Please pray for me.” That’s something all Adventists can do! That’s my take!