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Is Francis for real?

Can Pope Francis turn fans into followers? Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The newest blog at the on-line site for the National Catholic Reporter is “The Francis Chronicles." Followers can sign up for “email alerts” so they can keep up with the very latest on the new Pope.

That “The Francis Chronicles” (complete with instant alerts) even exists says a lot. One, this Pope is interesting. Two, his every remark has not been scrutinized and edited by a small army of Vatican insiders. Three, he might — its seems — say almost anything, at anytime, to anybody.

For his most recent interview, he called La Repubblica founder (and atheist) Eugenio Scalfari directly to set up an appointment. “Why so surprised?” said to the pope to Scalfari, after being patched through by a shaky secretary at the newspaper. “You wrote me a letter asking to meet me in person. I had the same wish, so I’m calling to fix an appointment. Let me look at my diary: I can’t do Wednesday, nor Monday; would Tuesday suit you?” 

Is “who am I to judge?” Francis for real? Not only has he famously refused to judge and condemn people who are homosexual, he has said he thinks the church has been “obsessed” (and not in a good way) with abortion, birth control and gays. Most recently he called attempts to convert people to Christianity “solemn nonsense.”

What effect will such a Pope have on the Catholic Church? Christianity? The World?

And here’s the question I’m really curious about: How did this surprising, refreshing man get to be Pope at all?

When I asked a colleague, a well-informed seminary professor and former Catholic, whether the Church knew what it was getting into when it elected Francis, she answered, “There are so few centrists and progressives in the ranks of the cardinals, it’s hard for me to believe any of them anticipated or wanted what they’re actually getting." The cardinals, she continued, "wanted a clean-up, and then a return to business more or less as usual in terms of the substance of things. Let him rearrange the furniture and get rid of the worst stuff, and then we can get on with it.”

The cardinals can't really be blamed for their misjudgment. Jorge Mario Bergoglio had a reputation as someone who ran a good diocese in Argentina, was clear-thinking and could give a good speech, but little in his track record suggested that he would become a Pope who now so regularly goes off-script. As the National Catholic Reporter journalist John Allen Jr. points out, “During his entire 15 years as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio gave a grand total of five interviews. In the seven months he’s been Pope, he’s already done three and they’ve been humdingers.”

Allen argues that, in important respects, Pope Francis is a different man than the one his colleagues knew. So, what happened? What changed? Allen points to a “mystical experience” Bergoglio had as he weighed the possibility of becoming Pope, an experience that Francis spoke of in his most recent interview in La Repubblica.

“My head was completely empty and I was seized by great anxiety,” said Francis of this experience. “To make it go away and relax I closed my eyes and made every thought disappear, even the thought of refusing to accept the position, as the liturgical procedure allows. I closed my eyes and I no longer had any anxiety or emotion.” 

In a different conversation, with a cardinal, Francis referenced this same mystical experience. “When I was elected, a great sense of inner peace and freedom came over me," he explained. "And it’s never left me.”

Hard-headed journalists and skeptics, both secular and religious, will be reluctant to credit an explanation that relies on “mystical experience.” And yet people who have known Francis for a long time, including his family, say he’s not the same guy. Something did happen, and it has helped Francis approach his new calling with remarkable freedom.

Therein lies a lesson for many clergy these days. Don’t take all your cues from the institution or its power-players. Take your cues, and your guidance, from God.

But will this Pope, who is so free to speak his mind and reach out to those who disagree with the stance of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican, have a lasting effect?

When I was senior minister at Seattle’s Plymouth Church (United Church of Christ), a congregation known for liberal theology and service to the needy, a conversation that I had with people I met in the larger community often went like this:

Upon learning who I was, they'd say, “Plymouth Church, eh? If I were ever going to be part of a church (unspoken “but I’m not”) that’s the kind of church I’d want to belong to.” Often the speakers were civic worthies who had been raised in some church, sometimes even Plymouth, but now saw no need or place in their life for religion or church. That is to say, our church found many admirers but not nearly as many committed participants among the Seattle’s liberal citizens and elite. When you multiple that pattern by millions, you end up with liberal churches and denominations struggling to stay afloat while religion and its institutions become dominated by the most conservative elements of society.

I wonder: Will Francis’s capacity to make a long-term difference suffer from such patterns? He may gather admirers. He already has. But will he find followers? Will his fresh spirit galvanize people to get in the trenches of the Roman Catholic Church, into its parishes? (A similar argument was advanced by New York Times columnist, and Catholic, Ross Douthat.)

Jesus too has many admirers, but not so many followers. If religion is to be rescued from the rigid right then some of Francis’s admirers will need to become followers.

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