They used to be members of the Unitarian Church (which is kind of where I am now), but for several decades, my parents have been Orthodox Atheist. By pure coincidence, they happened to be visiting my atheist sister in Washington DC during the papal visit. So I didn’t expect anything more than laughter when I suggested to my Mom that she ought to go downtown and get a blessing from Pope Francis.
As I typed this, the Pope was being shown on CNN riding around in his Popemobile, waving at folks in the capital of the U. S. of A., home to more Christians—and more Catholics, almost—than any country on Earth. The name “Popemobile” suggests something like the Batmobile, as if Francis were the latest DC or Marvel superhero, duking it out with Satan, kicking the Prince of Darkness in his hellish nether-regions. Get your Pope Francis action figures now, in time for Christmas Mass.
Maybe my parents needed a blessing, because on the trip from Seattle to DC, they missed their first flight, missed their connections, had to travel 30 miles late at night, to stay somewhere in Detroit (which I'm guessing was something like visiting Hades) and overall, had the trip from Hell. Maybe a little divine intervention, or at least Papal indulgence, would have come in handy.
But all kidding aside, I like this Pope, I really do. I’m not joking, and I’m going to tell you why…
First, I like that he picked “Francis” as his name. Historical aside: Since late antiquity (300 or 400 C.E. or so), Popes have picked a new name upon getting the top job in Catholicism. The reason is that in those days, many popes were born with pagan names. It was not thought proper that the leader of Christendom should have a name like “Romulus” or “Apollonius.” They therefore started picking names better suited to Christian sensibilities, and well… the tradition stuck.
The name “Francis” conjures up the memory of St. Francis of Assisi. It also conjures up St. Francis of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, which in modern times has become a bastion of education and closet liberalism. But it is Francis of Assisi we think of most. The vast majority of Catholic saints… and there are thousands of them… were canonized primarily because they were martyrs for the Church or otherwise stood up for Catholicism. They weren’t all necessarily nice people.
Francis of Assisi was cut from a different cloth. To the modern (especially non-Catholic) imagination, he embodies, far more than anyone else in the Middle Ages, everything meant by “sainthood”— emphasizing most of all humility, love of the poor and downtrodden, pacifism, kindness, and taking the vow of poverty seriously… the last of which can’t be said about the great majority of Medieval Popes and cardinals, who lived better than many kings.
I like Francis for being the first Pope to pick this name. I like, as well, that he shows signs of humility. He claims to be a simple parish priest, just as the Dalia Lama claims not to be the incarnation of Buddha but rather a “simple monk.” Of course we know that the Lama is the spiritual leader of an entire people, and the “parish” of Francis includes first of all Rome, and secondly the entire world.
Most of all, I like Francis because he seems to have read his Bible. The Bible is available in every language now (unlike Medieval times, in which the penalty for translating it into English was death – you had to stick to Latin!). So there is no excuse for not reading it. Open it with me now, to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. What do you find?
You will find, dear reader… and I guarantee you this… that Jesus says not one word about gay marriage. Or abortion. Or birth control. Or married priests. Or the evil of big government. Not a word.
Jesus does speak endlessly, however, about feeding the hungry, curing the sick, helping out the poor, and comforting the afflicted. He’s such a believer in non-violence that we are not to fight evil, but on the contrary, “turn the other cheek.” He doesn’t believe in vengeance, only mercy. (Try squaring the death penalty with that!)
And taxes? Did you honestly think that Jesus hates taxes? The only statement on this in the New Testament is “Render unto Caesar,” which—in case you’re too big a blockhead to get the point—means that anyone who can afford to pay their taxes ought to do so. Especially the rich, who won’t get into Heaven if they insist on hoarding all their wealth.
Francis speaks and acts like a man who has actually read this tract called the New Testament and hasn’t just rationalized it all away. Sure, he has yet to overturn the Church’s teachings on gay marriage and abortion, and it’s unlikely he ever will. Those steps are just too radical right now. But he de-emphasizes those things in favor of the things Jesus actually did talk about.
So I like this Pope. I know my parents, belonging as they do to the Church of Orthodox Atheism, are not about to fight their way through the crowds in downtown D.C. to get a Papal blessing. But should they happen to somehow find themselves in his vicinity, and feel the sudden need to get some divine favor, they could do a lot worse.