Tall Order

Hope and Change in the Vatican

Pope Francis, the first Pope from a developing nation, sees the world through the eyes of the poor and dispossessed.

Pool photo by Luca Zennaro

Add my name to the long list of souls who have leapt aboard the Pope Francis bandwagon. The People’s Pontiff might just provide the most hopeful development for world affairs in 2014.

I have a longstanding personal interest here. Growing up in a small, middle-class suburb of Boston, my religious education was largely based on the traditional Catholic pillars of guilt, shame, and fear. The main message of every mass was to show up at mass more often. The primary focus of Sunday school was on the sins we might commit, rather than the good works we might perform. As teenagers, we were taught about the sanctity of life with a graphic depiction of an aborted fetus. Subtle.

Religion, then, had almost nothing to do with my decision to attend the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. And yet, my first encounter with a Jesuit institution proved to be the most spiritually influential of my life. At Holy Cross, I experienced a Catholicism that was about service, compassion, and love. Doing good wasn’t simply a matter of individual salvation in the afterlife, but of our collective salvation here on Earth.

Politically, both the student body and the faculty leaned conservative, especially for a liberal arts school. But the college never wanted us to view the community service they encouraged as mere charity or volunteerism. In both the classroom and the chapel, the professors and priests at Holy Cross challenged us to think about how we could help change the social, political, and economic structures that contributed to the persistent poverty and inequality that so many of us witnessed just beyond our college gates.

This was the focus of the very first conversation I had with Barack Obama. During my interview for the speechwriting job in his Senate office, we discussed what motivated each of us to pursue careers in public service. I talked about Holy Cross, and the time I spent in Worcester helping welfare recipients navigate job training and social services. He talked about community organizing with Catholic churches on the South Side of Chicago, a formative religious and political experience that led him, as he would later say, “to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active palpable agent in the world—as a source of hope.”

For years, this view of faith as a force for social justice took a backseat to culture wars that were often waged in the name of Christianity. But Francis—the former Jesuit, janitor, and one-time bouncer—is the first Bishop of Rome who hails from a developing nation; the one who has most clearly seen the world through the eyes of the poor, powerless, and dispossessed. And so he has chosen to restore social justice as the central mission of the Catholic Church.

Conservative commentators have played down the differences between Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Well, yes, Benedict made statements about the dangers of free-market capitalism run amok, and yes, Francis is still firmly in line with the Church’s positions on abortion and gay marriage.

But legacies are defined by how we choose to prioritize the limited, precious time we have, and that is especially true for a Pope who has at most one or two decades to make his mark. Benedict, who during his tenure gave a speech that insulted Islam, reinstated a bishop who had denied the Holocaust, labeled homosexual acts an “intrinsic moral evil,” and failed to adequately address one of history’s most revolting sex abuse scandals, chose to focus on defending the institution of the Catholic Church, no matter how damaged or hypocritical it had become. As James Carroll wrote in his outstanding New Yorker profile of Pope Francis, Benedict chose to emphasize “the Church’s moral superiority” by “pitting the virtuous Church against the world’s ‘dictatorship of relativism.’”

For Pope Francis, the priority is not to defend Catholicism as the institution it has become, but to promote Catholicism as the message it was always meant to be. As the leader of a Church whose edicts and traditions have long appeared dated, Francis seems acutely aware that to be truly heard, his words and actions must be relevant to the times in which we live. And so he has chosen this moment—a moment of historic inequality, extreme materialism, bitter tribalism, and environmental degradation—to remind us that as children of God, we are called to something more.

This is a man who washed and kissed the feet of Muslim convicts, handed out phone cards to Eritrean refugees, spent his birthday with the homeless, and reached out to atheists during a Christmas homily. In response to an inquiry about women considering abortion because of rape or poverty, Pope Francis said, “Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” And in his answer to a question about gay men and women, he uttered what have become the most echoed words of his papacy to date: “Who am I to judge?”

Through these very visible, intentional gestures, it seems as if the Pope is not just signaling tolerance or celebrating diversity but placing a bet on humanity. It is a bet that his core message of peace, love, service, and compassion for the least for these will find a receptive audience among people of differing races, faiths, orientations, backgrounds and beliefs. It is a bet that the existence of the Golden Rule in almost every major religion is no cosmic coincidence. For as Pope Francis said on New Years, “We belong to the same human family and we share a common destiny.”

It remains to be seen whether the Pope’s bet will pay off in the form of more converts to Catholicism or policies in the U.S. and elsewhere that do a better job of alleviating poverty and inequality. As we know, politics can be mean, messy, and self-interested. Institutional change can be maddeningly slow. And the media’s extreme personalization of every new development will inevitably lead to cable chyrons that read, “Did the Pope Peak Too Fast?” when world peace hasn’t been achieved by 2015.

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But in a time of hardening cynicism and distrust, one man’s faith in our capacity to treat each other with greater justice and dignity has captured the attention of the entire world. Whether we heed his words and follow his example is now up to us.