Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

April 18, 2014

Pope Francis a model of humility

— — It seems fitting on Good Friday to say I think the current Pope is a good guy. Although I’ve been a Protestant all my religious life, there are a few branches of Catholics on my family tree. My mother was raised by a Catholic father and Baptist mother, so she attended both congregations growing up and taught us early to have respect for both. My sister converted several years ago. My husband’s mother is a devout Catholic. 

I also remember a profound moment with a college friend raised Catholic when, on Good Friday 30 years ago, we were touring the Vatican and stumbled into an area where Pope John Paul II was about to come out of a door only 30 feet away. When he did, an enthusiastic and stunned crowd of about 100 people roared, “Viva il Papa! Viva il Papa!” (Long Live the Pope!). My friend, who hadn’t been a practicing Catholic for years, scrambled onto a chair to see the small man in a simple white cap and tears began flowing as she thought about how excited her mom would be to hear about this unexpected religious encounter.

The person occupying the office of the papacy may have a profound impact on many people, but the personalities of some of the men leave a greater impression than others. The man currently holding the position may go down in history as either the most Christ-like to his supporters or Mr. Congeniality to his detractors. I think no one can deny how he has brought amazing humanity to a role sometimes played as regal.

From the very beginning, history writers started scribbling a year ago when a new pope was being chosen. It was unusual to have the transition of power from one living pope to another. When Pope Francis, or Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was chosen to replace Pope Benedict XVI, he made history as the first pope, as a native of Argentina, from a Latin American country. He’s also the first Jesuit Pope, the first Pope from the Americas, the first Pope from the Southern Hemisphere and the first non-European Pope since Pope Gregory III in 741, 1272 years ago, according to Wikipedia.

Many of us who were watching from the outside started taking notice. He chose to live in one of the small, relatively modest apartments offered to visiting clergy and lay people rather than the papal residence used since 1903. He rides in a smaller vehicle as opposed to the papal limousine. He wears regular black shoes rather than the shiny red shoes of a pope and prefers a plain silver cross to the elaborate gold one. He reportedly sneaks out at night to give money to the poor.

His first Maundy Thursday as Pope, he knelt down at the feet of young men and women at a mass in a Rome youth prison and washed them, just as Christ did. A pope had never been known before to wash the feet of a woman but he did it simply and without fanfare, as a servant of God. I remember a youth pastor leading my youth group in this exercise of feet-washing. I found it slightly awkward but also very moving and humbling, as both the washer and the “washee.” I can’t imagine what it would be like for anyone — man or woman, Catholic or otherwise — to have the leader of the Catholic Church kneel before you, washing your feet. It made me think of the uncomprehending disciples, watching Jesus with a bowl and towel before them.

But this pope is more notable for what he says and does than what he wears, where he lives, or whose feet he washes. He speaks freely, off the cuff, and, it appears, from the heart. Watching him embrace the masses who flock to him, one sees Jesus’ words come vibrantly alive: Love one another.

Pope Francis said last summer, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” He also reportedly said that Catholic teaching calls for homosexuals to be treated with dignity and not marginalized. Church officials say his comments don’t reflect policy changes but it seems to reflect a more loving approach to the disenfranchised and those who sometimes feel rejected by religion.

Just recently he addressed more directly than any official has in the past the issue that exploded in the Catholic Church: sexual abuse by priests:

“I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests, quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests, to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children. The Church is aware of this damage, it is personal, moral damage carried out by men of the Church, and we will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, we have to be even stronger. Because you cannot interfere with children.” There is still much more to be done to address this issue but the leader of the church taking responsibility is a very good place to start.

He has brought such humility to his position that it should remind all people in power — in religion, politics, media, business or any setting — that much can be accomplished with an intelligent and thoughtful mind, a modest and independent heart, and a compassionate and tender soul.

Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in North Carolina with her family. Contact her at jdesmond@bdtonline.com.

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