Three lessons Protestants can learn from Pope Francis

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Three lessons Protestants can learn from Pope Francis

September 24, 2013 -

“Hello, Anna,” said the voice at the other end of the line.  “This is Pope Francis.”

Anna Romano, a 35-year-old woman in Rome, learned last June that she was pregnant.  Her fiancé urged her to have an abortion.  When she learned that he was married with a family of his own, she ended their relationship.  In July, she wrote in desperation to Pope Francis.

When he called her personally, she says, “I was petrified.  I recognized his voice, and I knew right away that it really was the pope.”  Recovering, she told him how she felt “betrayed, humiliated.”  The pope, she said, spoke to her kindly as “a dear, old friend” would.  He “reassured me, telling me that the baby was a gift from God, a sign of Providence.  He told me I would not be left alone.”

Romano told the pope that she was worried about having the child baptized since she is divorced and on her own.  Francis said he was sure she’d find a willing pastor.  “But if not,” he reportedly added, “you know there’s always me.”  If it’s a boy, she’s naming him Francis.

Pope Francis “is consciously, not accidentally, but consciously taking the church in a different direction.  He is trying to change the culture of the church hierarchy,” according to one Jesuit theologian.  Not only is the new pope impacting the Catholic church in remarkable ways—he’s also making a significant difference for all Christians.

As a Baptist minister nearly four decades, I am enormously grateful for the Protestants who led me to Christ, who educated me, and who have called me to serve with them in vocational ministry.  I am also grateful for our Catholic sisters and brothers in the faith.  While we would disagree on a variety of theological subjects, we trust and serve the same Lord.  And I am grateful for the new pope and the impact he is making for the Kingdom.

So, as a Protestant, I find myself wondering: what can we learn from Pope Francis?

Lesson #1: Be yourself

A man once stood on a busy street corner, asking those who came by, “Who are you?”  Every person responded by saying what he or she did: “I’m a teacher” or “I’m a businessman” or “I’m a doctor.”

For Christians, the answer is different: we are the children of God.  That’s our identity.  What we do is not who we are.

The famous “Protestant work ethic” has historically blurred this line, defining us by our employment and other activities.  The more we do for God, the more we think he will approve of us.  Pastors can especially fall victim to this trap.  Most of us are people-pleasers by nature.  We measure ourselves by the three Bs: buildings, budgets, and baptisms.  So we are tempted to be what we think people want us to be, or what we think we need be to succeed.

What would Pope Francis say to us?

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elevated to the papacy on March 13, 2013, his first act was to receive the congratulations of the cardinals who elected him.  Breaking with precedent, he stood as one of them rather than sitting on the papal throne.

For his first public appearance he wrote a white cassock, the ordinary papal dress, rather than the more formal red, ermine-trimmed mozzetta used by previous popes.  He chose to wear the same iron pectoral cross that he had worn as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires rather than the gold one used by his predecessors.  A new pope’s first public act is to bestow the Urbi et Orbi blessing on pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square—but before Francis blessed them, he asked them to pray for his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and for himself.

Pope Francis then chose to remain in the Vatican guest house rather than moving to the official papal residence in the Apostolic Palace.  He is the first pope since Pius X (who died in 1914) to live outside the spacious papal apartments.  And he uses a 1984 Renault, donated by a priest, to drive himself around the Vatican.

Clearly, he has remained as pope who he was before his election.  His authenticity has greatly endeared him to a jaded culture that is skeptical of pretense but embraces transparency.

In an extensive recent interview with Antonio Spadaro, the pope was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”  His answer: “I am a sinner.  This is the most accurate definition.  It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre.  I am a sinner.”

So are we all.

A boy sits alone on a dock that stretches into a fog shrouded lake (Credit: buaiansayapanomali via DeviantArt)
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Lesson #2: We must earn the right to be heard

Billy Graham built a global evangelism ministry on three words: “the Bible says.”  The Protestant doctrine, sola Scriptura, claims that the Bible is our essential authority for faith and practice.

However, our postmodern culture rejects the notion of absolute truth and objective ethics, whether they are grounded in the Bible or any other source.  There was a day when a truth claim, if right, must be relevant.  Today if a truth claim is relevant, it might be right.  Now we must meet felt need to meet spiritual need.

As our culture has shifted from truth to relevance, the number of atheists and agnostics in America has grown ten-fold.  One in three young adults has no faith commitment.  Most Protestant denominations are in steep decline.
What would Pope Francis say to us?

Cardinal Bergoglio chose his name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi and to emulate his commitment to the poor.  He became the first pope to choose “Francis,” and the first since the year 914 to choose a name not previously used by a pope.

On the first Holy Thursday following his election, Francis participated in the traditional Maundy Thursday foot-washing service, choosing 12 people (symbolizing the 12 disciples).  However, the 12 he chose were juvenile offenders from Rome’s Casal del Marmo detention facility.

He washed and kissed their feet, then told them, “Washing your feet means I am at your service.”  He then encouraged them to “help one another.  This is what Jesus teaches us.”  Two of the twelve were female, making Francis the first pope ever to wash the feet of a woman.  In addition, two of the juvenile offenders were Muslims.  When one young man asked why he had chosen them, Pope Francis replied that the gesture came “from my heart.  Things from the heart don’t have an explanation.”  By washing their feet, he earned the right to preach the gospel to their souls.

Dr. Randel Everett, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Midland, Texas and a longtime friend, claims: “I don’t have the right to preach the gospel to a hungry person.”  Pope Francis would agree.

Lesson #3: People need Jesus

When I became the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Midland, Texas, I took a crash course in church governance.  My previous pastorate included around 200 members; this congregation numbered more than 8,000.  I was soon confronted with a laundry list of committees and task forces, one of which was the “Committee on Committees.”  Belying its humorous name, it turned out to be one of the most important committees, since it named the members of all the others.

It’s been said, “Where there are two Baptists, there are three programs”.  American Protestants are famous for our activism.  With our missionaries circling the globe, our expansive buildings and our frenetic programs, we are busy people.

Consider this pastor’s description:

Perhaps the ministry was never busier than it is now.  Hundreds of men are hoarse from continual speaking, and are wearied out with running here and running there.  If things slow down, we evolve yet another type of meeting.  And when this new and added wheel is spinning merrily with all the other wheels, there may be no spiritual outcome whatsoever, but there is a wind blowing in our faces; and we hot and sticky engineers have a comfortable feeling that something is going on.

Is this a portrait of the strain and stress of ministry in these challenging days?  Actually, these words were written by Arthur John Gossip in 1952.  How much busier are things today?

Over my decades of ministry, I’ve come to realize that busyness is not always a good measure of effectiveness.  What people need most, of course, is Jesus.

What would Pope Francis say to us?

When he met with the College of Cardinals for the first time as pope, Francis vowed, “We will make an effort to respond faithfully to the eternal mission: to bring Jesus Christ to humanity, and to lead humanity to an encounter with Jesus Christ: the Way, the Truth and the Life, truly present in the Church and, at the same time, in every person.”

Then he encouraged the cardinals to believe that “the Holy Spirit gives His Church, with His powerful breath, the courage to persevere, the courage to persevere and to search for new ways to evangelize, to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth.”  And he claimed:

Christian truth is attractive and convincing because it responds to the deep need of human existence, announcing in a convincing way that Christ is the one Savior of the whole of man and of all men.  This announcement is as valid today as it was at the beginning of Christianity when the Church worked for the great missionary expansion of the Gospel.

Francis told Antonio Spadaro, “We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound.”  Once when he was asked if he approved of homosexuality, he replied with another question: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?”  Then he added, “We must always consider the person.  Here we enter into the mystery of the human being.  In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation.  It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.  When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”

Perhaps the most often quoted statement in his long interview with Spadaro begins, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.  This is not possible.”  But he continued to explain:

The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.  Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. . . . The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant.  It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

And he added: “A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation.  There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. . . . the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”


In response to Pope Francis’ global popularity, National Journal’s Ron Fournier recently tweeted, “Catholic is the new cool.”

I am grateful for the example of Pope Francis.  With his humility, pastoral passion, and focus on the gospel, he reminds us of the saint whose name he bears.  And of the Savior whose Kingdom he serves.

In his remarkable interview with Antonio Spadaro, Pope Francis offers this word of encouragement to us all, whether Catholic or Protestant:

I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.  God is in everyone’s life.  Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life.  You can, you must try to seek God in every human life.  Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow.  You have to trust God.

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