In an interview with me two years ago, a little more than 24 hours before Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) lamented the silence of religious leaders, particularly in the Catholic Church, on issues involving the poor. He bemoaned the gilded lives of the Catholic hierarchy as suffering rolled around them. In an email after Bergoglio’s elevation, the Catholic congressman articulated high hopes for the new pontiff.
“I have always believed that we have a moral obligation to protect the least among us,” Rangel said. “It is my hope that Pope Francis, who now has the highest moral authority, will guide the church into becoming the voice for the poor, elderly and the sick — broadening its focus beyond advocating against same-sex marriage and abortion.”
Two years into his papacy, there is no question that Francis has exceeded Rangel’s — and the world’s — expectations. By saying, “Who am I to judge?” in response to a question about gay priests, the pope sent a thunderbolt through the church. His compassionate tone on homosexuality and other social issues, his advocacy for and outreach to the poor, has brought millions of people who were turned off by the church or tuned out the church completely back to the church. Francis’s rejection of papal opulence in favor of the simple, humble life he led in Argentina adds to the aura of accessibility — physical and spiritual — felt by people around the world. The enthusiastic reactions to Francis during his first-ever visit to the United States attest to that.
“The Pope is everything I want him to be,” Rangel told me during an interview last Saturday in Georgetown. “I think before I die I’ve finally seen somebody that symbolically at least…knows how to amplify a better way for us to live on this planet with rules that protect us from ourselves.”
This is very different from what Rangel came to expect from religious leaders, Catholics in particular.
“I have reached a point that I was finding the issues in Congress being more spiritual in nature than the work of the faith community,” the 23-term congressman told me. The former altar boy said (given his training) he believed “Jesus would have been a part of the Congressional Black Caucus if not a member.” He explained, “We [are] dealing with the lesser of our brothers and sisters. We’re dealing with poverty. We’re dealing with disparity. We’re dealing with racism. We’re dealing with lack of justice.” Rangel’s chief complaint? “You do hear the church loud and clear on life before birth,” he said. “But the silence is deafening on any issue after that child is born.”
When I asked Rangel if he would meet the Holy Father, the Harlem congressman was characteristically blunt. “I’m going to get as close as I can to meeting him. I’m not going to make myself look like a damned fool,” he said. “But I’m going to be there for me and not for the press because, quite frankly, I wouldn’t be talking with you if you didn’t ask that esoteric question, ‘What do I expect from the pope?’ I was just trying to get things off my chest.”
Perhaps there will be an opportunity for Rangel to meet the pope. After all, Our Lady Queen of Angels School that Francis will visit on Thursday in East Harlem is in Rangel’s congressional district. If he got the chance to talk to the pontiff, I asked Rangel, what’s the one thing he would love to be able to say to him?
“[I would say] that, as I get older, I have been more and more convinced that I could not find a spiritual person that I had no disagreement with anything,” Rangel said. “If I didn’t have time to say all of that, all I would do is say ‘Thanks.’ That’s all, ‘Thanks.’”
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