If you’ve been here any length of time, you know by this point that I have, at best, an arm’s length relationship with religion. From the start, I have yet to find a religion that has a basis in fact. When I say fact, it has to have a scientific base to it. I refuse to have my intelligence insulted into thinking that the Earth is 10,000 years old, that man walked with the dinosaurs and has ruled the planet over the last 6000 years. There’s also that dichotomy between a Supreme Being that is supposed to “love you” but, if you don’t follow His laws to the letter, will cast into a fiery pit to roast for all eternity, but that’s a minor point. Let’s just leave it that religion and I have several areas we would need to work on if there was to be any contemplations.
This isn’t meant to imply that I don’t know my share about many of the major religions around the world and even some of the minor ones. Catholicism was one of those that has always interested me because there is so little effort made to change it from the pagan days of Roman mythology. Whereas Christianity brought about the birth of Jesus on December 25 to coincide with the pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice (Bible scholars believe that Jesus Christ was either born in the spring or the fall, with fall much more likely – September 25 is a more accurate date to some), Catholicism doesn’t even try to hide their “patron saints,” basing them on the Roman gods and goddesses that populated the polytheistic religion that preceded them. As to the “God of gods,” ancient Romans looked to the deity Jupiter; to watch over the “patron saints,” there was, well…God.
Catholicism, with its roughly 1.13 billion followers (that’s the number the Vatican, the base for the Church of Rome and Catholicism, offers), is the second largest religious base in the world behind only Islam (I am separating Catholicism from Christianity because there are major differences between the two in my opinion; for the sake of argument, if you combine Catholicism and Christianity they are larger than Islam by number of followers). In the United States, 69.4 million citizens recognize themselves as Catholic, making them the largest denomination in the country. The Catholic faith has permeated U. S. society and government, with our current Vice President Joe Biden, the Speaker of the House John Boehner, six of the nine Supreme Court justices (including Chief Justice John Roberts) and a majority of the members of Congress and the state’s Governors worshipping as Catholics.
Therefore, it isn’t that surprising the attention that the papal visit of the current Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, to the United States has captured. Every major news network covered Pope Francis’ arrival in the U. S. on Wednesday (from Cuba, interestingly enough…a country that the U. S. just recently reestablished diplomatic ties with that was aided by this current Pope) with a fervor that is usually reserved for the British monarchy (that one I can’t even figure out). On Thursday, his address to Congress was “must see” television, as was his departure for New York City and more meetings. But what has been especially interesting – and I can honestly say that I am counted in this area – is the effect that Pope Francis’ visit has had on those of us with a skewed view of religion.
To say that Pope Francis isn’t a change from the past…oh, 2000 years?…of papal history would be the understatement of several millennia. Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is the first Pope from the Western Hemisphere in the over 2000-year history of the Catholic Church, the first non-European pope since 741 A.D. and the first Jesuit pope in history…that’s quite a few firsts on the docket already. Where Pope Francis has been able to further separate himself, however, is in his words and actions, which are probably the things that make him appealing to non-religious people.
Because of his Jesuit background that has an emphasis on social justice, Pope Francis – perhaps the least gaudily clad Pope in my lifetime, eschewing any gold jewelry or other finery unlike past Popes – has put an emphasis on working with the poor and bringing their standard of living out of the sewer from where it exists in many parts of the world. Sometimes this has caused Pope Francis to rail against “greed” and the pursuit of money over anything else in life. The Pope wasn’t the one who came up with this…it is part of the teachings of the Bible, the book that many claim to follow but when asked to put into practice decide to forget the sections they don’t agree with.
Pope Francis also recently released an encyclical (a papal comment on Catholic doctrine) that discussed global warming. Saying that humans and their lifestyles are causing increased problems with the situation, Pope Francis directed people to take an appreciation of their planet as they are “stewards of the Earth.” Once again, this isn’t anything radical (unlike what some might say), this is something that is in the Bible and a challenge to humanity to not fuck up the only place that they can live.
For myself, the biggest thing that Pope Francis did was today. In Washington, D. C., following his speech to the U. S. Congress, the schedule had Pope Francis having a high powered lunch with the leaders of both parties of the House and Senate, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, as well as other Congressional staffers. Instead of noshing with these “power brokers,” Pope Francis did what a man of God would do: turned them down and headed to lunch with 200 people at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, including some who were homeless or in need of the services of the organization.
The ability of Pope Francis to not only take the examples put into the Bible – love thy neighbor, reach out to those less fortunate, be a good caretaker of life and your surroundings (I could go on, but you get the idea) – but also to buck the trends of some in his own Church to politicize many of the beliefs of Catholicism (if there was ever a day to bring back the Papal food tester to make sure Pope Francis’ food wasn’t tainted, these days would be it). When some religious conservatives even have issues with what Pope Francis says, then he must be on the right track somewhere.
In my lifetime, this is only the second time that a religious figure has been able to impress me on any level. The first person was Billy Graham, who was able to look past religious beliefs and speak directly to whoever was listening about the word of God. Sure, Graham was a Christian but his sermons could be heard by, respected and learned from by anyone from any denomination or from no denomination at all (his son Franklin, on the other hand, has almost blasphemed the Graham name). Until Pope Francis came along (this Pope seems to have the same ability to get people to listen to what he’s saying), Graham was the only religious person whose viewpoint I actually respected.
This doesn’t give pass to the Catholic Church on some of their other subjects, however. The Vatican Bank is one of the largest in the world, with assets conservatively estimated at $5 billion, along with art treasures that the world has never seen. Property owned by the Catholic Church is worth well into the billions. The Vatican Library has documents that potentially could change history that few have ever seen. There is the denial of several atrocities that have occurred over the course of history, including the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the war against science in the Middle Ages (and the continued struggle between science and religion as a whole today), allowing the Nazi persecution of the Jews during World War II, the past and continued cover-up of child molestation by priests and several other issues. These are areas that have been woefully addressed by the Catholic Church and its leadership in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Even with Pope Francis at the helm, there are still issues that the Catholic Church is behind the times on (let’s not even get started there). But Pope Francis has shown that there is potentially a light that is leading the Catholic Church into the future instead of the darkness of dogma.
Will this light continue to shine? Pope Francis has already said he doesn’t envision his tenure with the papacy being a long one, but the hope does exist that the next man chosen to be the “right hand of God” will at least listen to what Francis has said and perhaps put his own futuristic mark on the direction of the Catholic Church. If the Church does decide to try to reverse what Pope Francis has started, then they might just push more people – of their own faith, other faiths and even those with no faith – away from the basis of believing.