Ok, I haven’t actually known any popes. Trust me, I would have blogged about it at this point if I had! But Pope Francis’ visit to the United States and Cuba the past week has prompted me to reflect on the impressions various popes have made on me throughout my life.
I have a vague memory of Pope John XXIII from when I was a child. When he died, I remember how the world was glued to their TV sets, watching a rooftop in Rome as Cardinals chose his successor. Along with millions of others, I waited for smoke emanating from a Vatican chimney to change from gray to black, indicating that a new pope had been elected.
Of course, since I was limited to watching the puff of smoke on a black and white TV set, the event was pretty disappointing for me since I couldn’t tell when the black smoke actual emerged! As a child, I was also oblivious to the fact that this jolly Italian had set off the biggest reform in the Catholic Church in hundreds of years with Vatican II.
I do clearly remember Pope Paul VI. He always seemed very stern. It was his demeanor that made young Protestants like me feel superior to Catholics. We were not like them with all of their rules and the need to bow down to an old man like Paul.
When Pope Paul died in 1978, I was more mature in my thinking. I closely followed the selection of his successor. He wanted to be a middle ground between John and Paul, so he took the name John Paul. Pope John Paul I was so appealing. Gregarious. Much like Pope Francis. Unfortunately, he only lived a few months. I think he would have been a leader in the ecumenical movement had he lived.
He was succeeded by John Paul II, a truly beloved Pope among Catholics. He had been the Cardinal from Warsaw, Poland. When he was elected, a joke went around: “The Cardinals could not decide on who to select so they said, ‘Let’s take a Pole.’”
It was silly, but apparently it left a lasting impression on me.
John Paul was warm and approachable, beloved by Catholics. Personally, I found his theology to be business-as-usual. As a Protestant, I didn’t feel included in the Kingdom of God as he saw it. But interestingly, my wife Mary was in New York during one of his visits to the United States. As she was walking down the street, around the corner came the Pope. He blessed her and then went on his way, so she certainly felt more included than I did! Perhaps this is a good example of actions speaking louder than words.
When he died, a tough-minded German theologian became Pope and took the name “Benedict.” He was hard for anyone to love. He has been quickly set aside even though he is still alive.
Which leads us to Pope Francis.
I am totally drawn to his focus on the poor, and it appears that he and I read the Bible in similar ways. His insistence on simplicity and poverty in his own life offers a stark contrast to the lavish (or at least extremely comfortable) lifestyles of his papal predecessors, and his actions coupled with his wisdom is inspiring people all over the world to act compassionately and with humility. He leads no armies and has no stock market. In some matters he is innocent, but I do find in him great wisdom.
I love it when he says things like, “Who am I to judge?” Certainly, many would say that he can judge simply because he is the Pope, but he sees it otherwise.
It’s the nature of blogging (and, likely, writing in general) that you’ll be halfway through writing a post and something will happen that makes you reexamine everything that you’ve already said. Obviously, I’m referring here to the reports that during his trip to the US, Pope Francis met with Kim Davis, the Kentucky court clerk who made headlines for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples within her county. I don’t know what to make of this meeting, and honestly, I was left slacked-jawed when I read the reports. Neither Pope Francis nor the Vatican has issued a statement explaining why the pair met, so I will trust he remains focused on the issues that affect the poor and remains a voice for love and those who have lived on the periphery of society.
I live by knowing that Paul is right, that we see through a glass darkly.
Just as I don’t know the motivations behind this meeting, I don’t know what he would think of the particulars of my Methodist theology. But I don’t think it really matters. As John Wesley said, “If your heart is as my heart, if you love God and all mankind, I ask no more: give me your hand.”
May we all have one heart.