Pope John Paul II generated a rock-star level of excitement and drew massive crowds to his appearances at Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden in 1979, where throngs of teenagers reacted almost as if another John, Paul, plus Ringo and George had appeared, instead of the white-haired leader of the world’s largest Christian church.
In a word, Pope John Paul II was cool. Athletic and authentic, he was a man of the people and a pope for the future. A spiritual leader known as much for his refreshing bluntness as his spontaneous acts, like stepping away from the Popemobile outside New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral to plunge into adoring crowds.
At the time, it was shocking, as shocking as when Pope Francis broke away from his cloistered existence to wash the feet of young female prisoners. Little did we know, Pope Francis was just getting started. Like millions of others, I am gratefully stunned by his recent revolutionary remarks on the Catholic Church’s “obsession” with long-held doctrines on gay people and abortion. We’re all witness to an unexpected, unprecedented moment that is nothing less than thrilling.
I am not a member of Pope Francis’ church. But as president of New York’s Auburn Theological Seminary, in covenant with the Presbyterian Church to which I am ordained, I am committed to building an inclusive multifaith movement for justice that works on behalf of all. At a time of poison gas attacks, mass shootings and historic floods, we are desperate to hear from a global leader offering a straightforward and universal message of love and acceptance. Gauging by the response, Pope Francis is fulfilling a profound longing for authentic leaders.
It’s not the first time a Catholic priest has influenced me. Although raised the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and seminary professor, by age 16 I rebelled against my upbringing, going so far as to declare myself an atheist, with relish.
By the time I was a college sophomore in the 1970s, my early rebellion turned confrontational. I was on a quest for knowledge and traveled to Germany with other students studying faith-based justice movements that went as far back as the World War II resistance. One Christian community we visited had adopted orphans during the war and was now reaching into East Germany. A Catholic Church in Cologne was addressing immigration issues around Muslim worker rights. It was edgy work. Still, I was buoyed more by the politics of change than by religious mission. I’d yet to grasp how much could be accomplished when you fully embrace both.
Invited to the church monastery for vesper services, I boldly asked the priest who greeted me at the door if I – a non-Catholic – could take communion. I was daring him to say no. I needed him to reinforce my view of religions in general, and Catholicism in particular, as exclusionary and entrenched in an us-versus-them mindset.
Instead, he welcomed me inside to take communion. With that one small yet magnanimous and inclusive gesture, everything I’d struggled to reconcile came together. For the first time in years, my path was clear and that moment, I was re-born. The priest and I may have been divided by doctrine, but we could be united by faith. I never saw that priest again. I don’t even know his name. But would he be surprised to learn that our chance meeting led me to an advanced divinity degree, ordination, and then on to lead a seminary.
Looking at Pope Francis, I see “my” priest in Germany who restored my faith in a loving God who had been there all along. I hope with all my heart Pope Francis is an instrument of change for others, the way a Catholic priest once was for me.
He’s now got the attention of millions who aren’t even members of his church. We are cheering him on, urging him to take the next giant step and directly address centuries old Church dogma, practice and culture, while convincing others in power to do the same. That’s his job, his duty and potentially, the most important contribution he’ll ever make.
Like Francis, Pope John Paul II also grabbed our attention. For all the good he accomplished with his multi-faith outreach, the pope who seemed like such a breath of fresh air in the heady “Pope-on-a-Rope” days, passed on his chance to chart a new course for the Church on issues like the ordination of women, reproductive health and artificial contraception, and institution-wide cover-up of predatory priests.
Pope Francis can make papal history in a way that’s consistent with the early teachings of another radical – Jesus—who was more interested in getting to the root truth — mediating God’s love — than the form of religion. With a few bold acts and a single interview, Pope Francis seems to be making it clear that his values are aligned with the present instead of the past.
I know there are many who worry Pope Francis is being directed by desperate Vatican leaders in a carefully crafted effort to re-brand a scandal-plagued Church. I don’t blame them for their cynicism because I’ve felt it myself. However, Pope Francis is inspiring me to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I don’t expect the Catholic Church to turn on a dime, embrace female, gay and married priests and partner with Planned Parenthood. But then again, if you’d told me I’d see same-sex marriage and federal health care all become reality in 2013, I would have thought you were crazy. Change can creep toward us in tiny, painful increments or rush at us with all the sudden drama of a tumbling Berlin Wall.
Pope Francis is a person of humility and humor who has proven himself to have a golden touch and a global reach. I see him inspiring others the way a German priest inspired me 30 years ago, at a time in my life when I hadn’t read the Bible or entered a church in years. I hope he seizes his chance to re-shape the Catholic Church into an institution that reflects today’s multi-faith, multi-gender, multi-race world. He seems to represent the best of Catholicism as he exhibits what Auburn Seminary prizes: “Troubling the water to heal the world.”
The Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson is president of Auburn Theological Seminary, a 200-year old institution that dedicates itself to helping foster faith leaders from diverse backgrounds, who want to bridge divides through interfaith understanding and social justice initiatives.