A Popular Pope

It was a moving, gripping photo. Pope Francis tenderly embracing a man suffering from a disfiguring illness. The picture oozed compassion, and spoke much of the obvious compassion of the Pope himself. The world saw the photo and responded very positively. This Pope was different!

In stark contrast to his predecessor—and perhaps to many of his predecessors—Pope Francis has broken with papal convention. He has shunned certain expensive aspects of the papacy. He has at times stressed his security detail as he connects with people in the vast crowds of well-wishers. He has demonstrated himself to be a man of the people, and the revelation that he was once a nightclub bouncer reinforced the idea that this pope is ‘one of us.’ The pope he replaced, Pope Benedict XVI, was an older man who seemed far less accessible and immersed in weighty theology. In contrast, Pope Francis has gone so far as to ask who he is to condemn people for being homosexual. Not what one expects from a Pope! For hundreds of years popes condemned people—often to death—for much less! The New York Times reported that a columnist for Britain’s Guardian newspaper said, “Even atheists should be praying for Pope Francis.”

There has certainly been a global warming towards this man of the cloth, and towards the church he shepherds. He was declared Time magazine’s ‘Man of the Year’ for 2013. But I found the following journalistic offering to be truly enlightening.

Pope Francis recently said, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” One journalist commented on this remark by saying, “I think the new Pope is trying to get me back in the pew every Sunday.”

Think about this. Embracing an unfortunate homeless man; commenting on social issues; being a man of the people; shunning excess; showing yourself to be approachable and accessible… All of them laudable, commendable things. And they have understandably resulted already in heightened appreciation for the church of the pope.

But what do any of these things have to do with real faith in God? A certain amount, to be certain. Love, gentleness, goodness and meekness are fruit of the Spirit. Love and concern for others are Christian virtues, and few would suggest we see too much of it from religious leaders, or religious people in general.

But what do they reveal about the true nature of the papacy? The obvious answer is, very little. That Pope Francis is a really nice man with a kind heart says nothing at all about what the Roman Catholic Church actually stands for, actually believes. These actions tell the world nothing about the Catholic Church’s positions on the Word of God, and how it relates to Scripture. In short, even if Pope Francis were the nicest man alive, what’s really important is what he teaches from the Bible, how he represents the Word of God. If you want to judge the Roman Catholic Church, doing so based on the gracious demeanor of Pope Francis is an alarmingly shallow way to do it. A more accurate picture regarding the personality of this church can be gained by reading the church’s official Catechism.

If Pope Francis gets people back in the pew every Sunday by commenting on social issues, that would be a sad commentary on society. Shouldn’t church attendance have something to do with a church’s stand on the Bible? Based on what we’re witnessing with the rise of Pope Francis’ popularity, not everybody thinks so.

And that’s alarming.