I am not a Christian. But growing up in India, I was immersed in Christianity. I attended Catholic and Anglican schools from ages 5 to 18, where we would sing hymns, recite prayers and study the Scriptures. The words and actions of Pope Francis have reminded me what I, as an outsider, have always admired deeply about Christianity, that its central message is simple and powerful: Be nice to the poor.
When I came to the United States in the 1980s, I remember being surprised to see what “Christian values” had come to mean in American culture and politics — heated debates over abortion, abstinence, contraception and gays. In 13 years of reading, reciting and studying the Bible, I didn’t recall seeing much about these topics.
That’s because there is very little in there about them. As Garry Wills points out in his perceptive new book, “The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis,” “Many of the most prominent and contested stands taken by Catholic authorities (most of them dealing with sex) have nothing to do with the Gospel.”
The church’s positions on these matters were arrived at through interpretations of “natural law,” which is not based on anything in the Bible. But because those grounds looked weak, conservative clergy sought to bolster their views with biblical sanction. So contraception was condemned by Pope Pius XI, Wills notes, through a pretty tortuous interpretation of a couple of lines in Genesisthat say Onan “spilled his seed on the ground” — since it involves ejaculation without the intent of conception.
The ban of women in the Catholic clergy is a similar stretch. When the Anglicans decided to ordain female priests in 1976, Pope Paul VI presented a theological reason not to follow that path. Women could not be priests, he decreed, because Jesus never ordained a female priest. “True enough,” Wills writes. “But neither did he ordain any men. There are no priests (other than the Jewish ones) in the four Gospels. Peter and Paul and their fellows neither call themselves priests nor are called priests by others.”
If you want to understand the main message of Jesus Christ, you don’t have to search the Scriptures. He says it again and again. “Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Jesus has specific advice on how to handle the poor. Treat them as you would Christ himself, sell your possessions and give to the poor. When you hold a banquet, Jesus says, do not invite the wealthy and powerful, because you do so in the hope that they will return the favor and reward you. Instead, invite the dispossessed — and you will be rewarded by God. It is because he expects so much from the rich that he said that it was easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven.
Commentators have taken Francis’s speeches and sayings and attacked him or claimed him as a Marxist, a unionist and a radical environmentalist. I don’t think the pope is proposing an alternative system of politics or economics. He is simply reminding each of us that we have a moral obligation to be kind and generous to the poor and disadvantaged — especially if we have been fortunate. If you have a problem with this message, you have a problem not with Pope Francis, but with Jesus Christ.
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With the ‘People’s Pope’ Francis’ Visitation of the United States almost over, this article from the Washington Post, where a non-Christian writer discusses Garry Wills new book, “The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis, describes a Pontiff, Bishop of Rome, whose eirenic rule of the Roman Catholic Church is radically different from many of his predecessors.
Pope Francis’ experience of the poverty of Argentina in South America has undoubtedly influenced his attitude to the poor – to whom he dedicates much of his attention in speeches to his vast audiences around the United States. Much like Pope John XXIII who, against all expectations, convoked the historic Vatican II Council soon after his enthronement; Pope Francis has lost no time in bringing to his pontificate an openness to the disenfranchised in the Church and the World, to a degree impossible before the expansion of modern media facilities, which – instead of perpetuating messages of fear and disaster- have taken time out to follow the activities of this ‘Little Poor Man’ whom God has called to be the Bishop of Rome.
Though constrained by Vatican protocol for much of his scheduled activity, there just is no holding back by Pope Francis from outspoken criticism of the rich nations’ over-consumption of natural and material resources. Global Warming has become one of his topics of conversation. His manner in conveying his message is not that of a tyrannical potentate or worldly politician; rather, it is in the manner of his illustrious namesake, Francis of Assisi, whose concern for all creation and the poor brought hope to many.
With a winning smile – even when his white zuchetta (papal hat) was blown off his head by the wind when descending from an aircraft (and I’ll bet that was grabbed by someone in the greeting crowd and cherished as a souvenir of the visit) – Pope Francis was always ready to embrace a child, with the demeanour that showed he understood the dynamic of Jesus message: “Let the little children come to me; forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven”.
While endorsing the need for religious freedom in America, the Pope also told his bishops not to become obsessed with religious dogma, so that ordinary people would not be turned away by prejudice or dogmatism. He also took time out to thank the women of the Church, for their tireless support of the mission of Christ to the world. All in all, a paradigm of how to draw people to Christ by loving words and actions, in the footsteps of ‘The Master’.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand