Religion is struggling these days to be relevant.
About the only place it seems to me, strangely enough, to be entering some slight renewal is within Catholicism, which needs it, considering all of the horrors of past priest abuse. And that flicker of renewal is due solely to the fresh presence of Pope Francis.
Pope Francis is in many ways a maverick. He is one of the few in religion today who gets religion. He is telling us and showing us what religion is supposed to do.
Choosing not to live in the luxurious pontiff’s apartment and the surroundings of the papal palace he moved into a small modest cottage nearby. He has scorned capitalism and materialism and asks us to live for what matters. His sermons are filled with words of mercy and peace and the love of Jesus.
Pope Francis goes to the people after each mass and tenderly, lovingly shakes their hands, waves, kisses babies and touches the sick and prays for them. There was a photo online the other day of him approaching a man in the crowd whose face was covered in painful tumors. The man buried his head in the Pope’s chest as Francis put his hand on the man’s face and affirmed him in love. The man’s disfigurement momentarily lost its horror in the presence of so much generous humanity.
Pope Francis exudes an authentic and appropriate affection for children and they grin and beam when he is near them. I saw on television a few days ago where a little boy somehow made his way onto the stage where the Pope was speaking and simply stood next to him. A papal security agent dressed like the CIA in a black suit and sunglasses clumsily tried to coax the child away with a candy sucker but he would not budge. The Pope merely smiled, put his hand on the boy’s head, and continued.
This week the news carried the story that Pope Francis is going out at night dressed in the usual clothes of a parish priest to be among the homeless, to show them care, to offer them friendship, and to let them know they matter.
When asked by a reporter not long ago about gays the Pope responded, “Who am I to judge them?”
This is the work of religion.
The old term for what we usually think of as church was “sanctuary.” From the French and Latin the word originally carried the idea of a sacred or holy place. In medieval times fugitives went to the church for protection from arrest and punishment by the law. Imagine that; religion serving to protect the guilty.
In our day religion is all mixed up in politics, in economics, in cultural wars, in divisive ideologies, and too often in bigotry and elitism and the separating of the self-righteous from everyone else.
Caught in those defeating agendas, religion, apart from the Pope’s example, has little meaningful future.
I have always thought religion should be about giving people personal dignity, nourishing their sense of humility, guiding them into a more tolerant love, and giving them insight into their original worth.
It should help all of us in keeping ourselves recognizably human.
Religion is not about making us different, or holy, or unique, or better. If it is to mean anything it ought to be about teaching us the value and beauty of both diversity and equality and helping us see how we really are in spite of our differences all the same in our deepest longings, our human frailties, our easy disgraces, our need for goodness, and in our search for love.
Book reviewer Silas Sparkhammer has said, “For me, religion is like a rhinoceros: I don't have one, and I'd really prefer not to be trampled by yours.”
Somehow I think Pope Francis would smile at that, and agree. He is giving religion an identity all of us can relate to, and if we choose, to make our own.
© 2013 Timothy Moody