I am a staunch Baptist, raised in the shadow of fire and brimstone, surrounded by women in broad hats and below-the-knee skirts and men in three-piece suits with handkerchiefs sitting in front of mass choirs with matching robes. And yet still I find myself glued to the television set listening to news of Pope Francis’ impending visit to Cuba and the United States next week.
The Pope is coming! The Pope is coming! I am amazed at my interest and excitement, actually.
Why, one might ask, are many Protestants worldwide so intrigued by this Pope? The answer is simple: He is charismatic, non-European and outspoken like none other in recent times. He has caught the attention of many non-Catholics with his focus on the poor and his desire to shakeup the church.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires in 1936 of parents who were Italian immigrants. He was elected the 266th pope on March 13, 2013 and is the first non-European pope elected since the year 741. He is also the first member of the Jesuit order to be elected pope.
Bergoglio took the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, a man of poverty who championed the poor. His taking the name was the first sign of his true commitment to the world’s poor and disenfranchised.
Next week, Pope Francis will first stop off in Cuba before going to Washington, D.C., New York and then Philadelphia where he will attend the World Meeting of Families – a gathering conceived by Pope John Paul II. It will be the fourth time a pope has visited the United States and the first time for Pope Francis.
While he has been greatly criticized by many conservatives because of his called for his church to give mercy on divorced couples and women who have had abortions, his urging of the world to address the issue of climate change, his denunciation of unchecked capitalism and his call to integrate gay people into society, he has been embraced by – and gained respect from – many, including non-Catholics, for his strong and open stance on such issues.
“Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that creates huge inequalities,” Pope Francis has said.
Many have seen Pope Francis’ election as a sea change for the world’s largest denomination, with 1.2 billion followers. With that many worshipers, the Catholic Church cannot be ignored.
The Rev. John White II, of Immanuel Temple in Miami Gardens, says the Pope’s visit is significant “because of his stance on really being like Jesus.
“This Pope, like no other in recent memory, is showing all of us, including Protestants, that Jesus always cared for the least, the lost and the left behind. His touching, embracing and spending time with the marginalized in society is a major statement to believers about what’s really important – pomp and circumstance, or people and caring for them?” said Rev. White, who has served in several leadership roles at African Methodist Episcopal churches in Florida. (Immanuel Temple’s doors are open to all denominations.)
My childhood classmate, Sonja Andrews of Miami, who is now in divinity school at Duke, says, “Say what you will, the Pope still has the minds of the world regardless of if you are Catholic or not. He is the first non-European Catholic Pope and views the world from a different lens. His decisions are revolutionary for this church and the world is watching. He will definitely bring sidelined Catholics [during his visit] and speak to the conditions both good and bad in Cuba and the United States.”
A number of my Catholic friends have been greatly discouraged with the church over the past two decades after case after case of pedophile claims came to fore. Many left the church; others just stopped attending mass. Many are waiting for Pope Francis to significantly address the issue head-on. As for the Pope, he is eager to see people return to the church. “Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent,” he has said.
I wondered if my enthusiasm was shared by other Protestants in my circles. So I asked their thoughts.
Lori Buckner, fellow Howard University alum, said that “Pope Francis speaks in the language of love.
“While there are still an array of issues one could have with the Catholic Church’s positions past and present, many non-Catholics may have had a hard time hearing the compassion in the voice of the Catholic Church until now. Believers in Christ should be excited to perceive love coming first. … Actually, everyone regardless of their faith or tradition, should be excited about that, yes? In a crazy world, this looks like a bright spot.”
“The pope’s visit marks a new era in the church,” said Kimberly Hayes Taylor, of Detroit. “While the church was losing ground with the masses (no pun intended), this pope recognizes the need for change that includes more honesty and a stronger grip on the realities of the world, the issues that real people grapple with. The shift in policies represents an increased level of love, less condemnation and more humanity.”
Added BMaynard Scarborough, my Martha’s Vineyard pal and marketing guru, “I’m not a Catholic, but as a 21st century-minded spokesman for the millions who follow his leadership, I’ve got no problem with papal dude. His signals on less pomp and more substance in meeting his flock where they are is admirable.”
This Pope is one to keep an eye on, and what comes of his visit next week should be of interest to all, including Protestants, atheists and agnostics. I, for one, will be watching.
Rev. White sums it up beautifully. “All believers should really take a second look at the Pope and see how he forgoes all of the living-out-loud stuff of those in his position. He rides the bus, drives himself and really wants to show the world ‘A More Excellent Kind of Way’. I am interested to see what he says to the people here in the U.S. as well as Cuba. Does he address issues that affect both countries, or is it simply the same-old-same-old?”
For more information on the Pope’s visit to the United States, go to popefrancisvisit.com
Alison Bethel McKenzie firstname.lastname@example.org is a veteran newspaper editor and former executive director of the International Press Institute in Vienna, Austria.