Monday, December 2, 2013

My New BPF

Thanksgiving weekend has passed us by (or buy, if that's how you celebrate the holiday), and we are one purple-candlit Sunday into one of my favorite seasons: Advent.

So it seems apt today, right in the spot where a holiday dedicated to gratitude fades into a time of seeking light in the darkness and anticipation of joy to come, to talk about the man who is surprising me more than anyone these days.

Francis. He's my new BPF, or "best pope forever," as the kids might say.  Actually, the kids probably don't use those phrases anymore; I can't keep up with modern times. But hey, guess who can?  THE POPE.

I was raised in the Catholic church, by a Catholic father and a mother who was brought up as a Methodist, but converted right around my baptism. Mom never shook off her Protestant roots, at least from my perspective, which I actually thought was much to the benefit of her kids. A little thread of reformation woven into my Catholicism was really a boon to me, as I was able to participate in the traditions and practices of the church, while recognizing that not all of them were so darn important that I should get in a tailspin about them; in fact, plenty of people didn't follow any of them and seemed just fine.

I loved my childhood church, and was active in it. I started cantoring in the eighth grade, participated in youth group, and despite being a public-school kid, I served as the youth representative in the church's parish council. At some of those parish council meetings, I got to hear many adults—my "peers" on the committee—talk about how rotten it is when parents don't send their kids to Catholic school, primarily because there was such a desperation at that time surrounding falling enrollment at said schools. Public-school kid that I was, I remember being hurt by it, then thinking, "Hey, wait a minute! I'm the one here, not a Catholic-school kid—it must not be too rotten." Years later, I had a similar reaction during my year abroad when my French friends would tell me this joke:

What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual.
What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual.
What do you call a person who only speaks one language? American

Given that they told this joke to me, an American, in French, it fundamentally stopped making sense—how am I understanding this dumb joke if I only speak English?—but even so, it smarted. Much like the Catholic school jabs earlier, I didn't want to feel like I didn't belong, or worse, I didn't belong because I wasn't doing the "right" thing.

I wanted to do it all right, religiously speaking; I grew up, continued to be active in church, and did everything from teach CCD to participate in liturgy committee to be a part of the music ministry. Of course, when you are a married, liberal woman in the Catholic church, there is only so much you can do to feel like you belong in the church's decision-making mechanism, for obvious reasons. At the same time I began to hit my denomination's glass ceiling, I started to see my need to participate not as devotion, but as my own personal heresy, an idolatry to my own service, a desire to belong in the group of deserving folks, not a desire to help others who are deserving.

A quick review of church history shows that we Catholics have a historical knack for creating unnecessary exclusivity, particularly when we can use "right living" as the secret password to our club (even if none of the club members remember it once they are admitted). The global tragedy which is the church's child sex scandal, and its systematic cover-up favoring members of the priesthood over the needs of children who had been raped by the clergy, may be the most horrific recent example of how the desire to protect the inner sanctum of the church has devastated the church body as a whole. I will admit that, as I've learned more and more about the cover-ups, the pay-outs, the moving of reoffending pedophiles from one parish to another, I have been deeply disconnected and mistrusting of the people running the show at the Catholic Church; my overall relationship with the sickened church has become a defensive one.

But you know, this new pope, my BPF, he's facing this head-on. He's tired of a structure that would support that kind of gilded duplicity, and the damage and pain it causes. He wants us to stop focusing on "obsessions" (his word, not mine), or feeling safe all tucked up in our churches and schools, and to get out and feed the hungry. He means this as a metaphor, I'm sure, but more importantly, he means this literally. Get dirty. Go be with the people, 'cause guess what: we are all just one of the people. You have worked hard to earn what you have, but now, God wants you to give it away, and...wait for it both gratefully and in a hands-on manner. 

This guy makes me swoon.

Pope Francis doesn't seem nearly as interested in telling people whether they are right or wrong, as he is interested in serving others. Serving others, in the framework provided by Christ, doesn't mean asking questions about who is worthy, or who will or will not squander the help offered, in order to perform service. It is unconditional. It looks like this: Show up. Be vulnerable. See others as yourself. Get ready to get hurt, because it will happen. When it does, show up again. And again. Forgive a hundred times over, then show up again.

In a world increasingly divided among rich and poor, with the rich becoming richer in an exponential way, the poor losing access to the basic necessities required for human dignity, and the middle class disappearing in plain sight, this pope seems to also understand that, practically, helping the least among us helps us all. I have been waiting for someone with great influence and a mission of caring to profess this understanding clearly and decisively on the world stage; I never, ever imagined it would be a pope.

After reading the highlight's of the pope's publication, Evangelii Gaudium, last week, I felt a sense of relief about the future of my church that I hadn't had in at least a decade. I could physically feel the weight leaving my chest, and breathe coming in, as I thought about what this man could mean for our world; I feel it again even now, as I type, and every time it comes to mind. I also desire a place to help others, in face-to-face service, in compassion delivered directly from one soul to another. I heard you, Pope Francis, and I'm thankful.

And so, I wait in joyful hope...and at the same time, I follow the lead of this humble Jesuit with Franciscan leanings, and now look to find ways to serve the people who need help the most; the hope is there, waiting to be delivered, if only we will take up the task. I'll keep you posted on my progress.

1 comment:

  1. If that's what this Pope is toting (get it, Pope Toting—sounds fun huh?) then I'm all in. We have had many conversations over the years about my fragile belief system. You have always found a way to explain things to me in a human way. I'll never forget your talk about Ash Wednesday! So, in the same respect that the Pope is reaching the real people, on their level, to help and support and love—you've been doing it since I met you.