Pontiff of the Year

Surprising no one except perhaps Edward Snowden, Time magazineTime Magazine Cover, Person of the Year 2013 today named Pope Francis as its Person of the Year for 2013. (Click here or on the photo to read the article.) In my opinion, this is a worthy choice. Over the nine months since his election as pontiff, Francis has certainly generated plenty of headlines and created lots of conversation. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t see a post in my Facebook feed of a story about the pontiff, usually detailing some way in which he has modeled the way of Jesus for the world. I love these stories, and I have more than once admitted to crushing on the pope.

What I’m less in love with, though, is the implied message in a lot of the comments I see on these stories from a lot of Protestants. Often the comments applaud the way Francis is changing things within the Roman Catholic church, either in tone or in substance. Unfortunately, they often do it in a way that implies a subtext of “It’s about time those ignorant, backward, idolatrous, corrupt Catholics caught up with us righteous Protestants.” Perhaps it’s just because I’m Lutheran and tend to know a lot of Lutherans, but it seems like this holier-than-them attitude is most prevalent among Lutherans. One comment, posted after Francis’ interaction with a small child who came and stood next to him during a speech, is a prime example: “Wow. It looks like the Reformation may finally have made it to Rome. Well, except for the cardinal who tried to hustle the kid off the stage.”

This kind of snark sounds to me like the throwing of stones from the front porch of our own glass house. Yes, one of the cardinals tried to escort the boy back to his seat on the steps. But the same thing would happen if a child wandered up to the pulpit in most Lutheran churches. Yes, the Roman Catholic church doesn’t ordain women. But just last week I was told by a Lutheran that the ELCA’s practice of ordaining women means we have rejected the Lutheran Confessions, which make no mention of the ordination of women. Yes, the Roman Catholic church has typically had a very conservative view on homosexuality. But I have seminary classmates who no longer speak to me after the ELCA’s vote in 2009 to allow people in committed, life-long same-sex relationships serve on the rosters of the church. Yes, there is corruption in the Roman Catholic church, but there have been plenty of stories over the last couple of decades of congregational and synodical treasurers in the ELCA being caught at embezzlement. Yes, Francis is modeling the way of Jesus in ways that many of his predecessors have not, but he’s also modeling it in ways that many Lutherans have not, either. We have plenty of planks to remove ourselves before we concern ourselves with pointing out the specks of our brothers and sisters in any other faith tradition.

My hope is that Francis will be a force for reform and an example of the way of Christ not just for the Roman Catholic church but for all Christians everywhere. His humility, his openness about his own challenges in living the life of faith, his pastoral concern for the brokenhearted and his calls for justice and care for the poor and oppressed are things we can all learn from. Francis is not just an example for the Roman Catholic church, but for the church catholic as well.

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