New Pope Caught Between Sacred Past and New Present

Pope Francis Portrait Painting
Pope Francis Portrait Painting (Photo credit: faithmouse)

The whole world rejoiced when the new pope was named, myself included. No, I am not Roman Catholic, but I looked for the white smoke, and when it showed, I rejoiced.

When former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio emerged from the security of the cardinals into the insecurity of the world, everything seemed in balance again.

Though confused as to why the Roman Catholic church continues to elect such old men to an office that has behemoth responsibility, there is something to be said about the peace that the world could possibly be feeling this morning because that important office has been filled.

Now what?

Can an old man address the newness of an old world, with old religious beliefs and practices?

It is true that the world wanted the office of pope to be filled, sooner rather than later, but the new pope has a mess awaiting him. The Roman Catholic church is in disarray, due largely to the reported incidences of sexual misconduct of priests.  That disarray is further exacerbated by the fact that the Roman Catholic church has seemed to be resistant to the way the world has changed. This is not a day and time where Catholics receive a word from the Vatican as sacrosanct, unable to be challenged.  Catholic women want to be ordained as priests. Some male priests are challenging the value of the need for priests to take vows of celebacy. More and more Catholics are speaking up for same-sex marriage, which the new pope reportedly opposes. It seems that there is a search for a new Catholic dogma and doctrinal reality, but from what has been shared about Pope Francis, it seems highly unlikely that there will be any modern or updated changes to ancient Catholic practices and beliefs.

This pope is said to be an extremely humble man, a man who gave up his house in order to live in a more modest apartment, a man who takes public transportation, and who reportedly once washed the feet of men infected with HIV/AIDS. He has a heart for the people, “the least of these,” which is endearing and encouraging to know.

But in his office as pope, it seems highly unlikely that he will be able, or even allowed, to get out and mix with the very poor and forgotten Catholics of the world. What a mark it might make on a world which is filled to the brim with countries that are severely in debt, apparently putting more stock in materialism and the acquisition of wealth, rather than with taking care of those less fortunate. In fact, in these hard economic times, lawmakers of struggling countries seem more eager to cut programs that help “the least of these,” a category of people which seems to be growing daily, than to cut into the lives of the very wealthy.

One wonders if Pope Francis will address that apparent reality? Some would ask if it’s even necessary, but in a day where morality is being investigated, especially as it regards the rights of the LGBT community and same-sex marriage, and, of course, the sexual scandals involving priests and young boys, there seems to be a need to expand the definition of morality. Surely, ignoring the poor is immoral. Surely, taking from the poor in order to protect the wealth of the wealthy is…immoral.  Will the new pope, if he believes along the lines just stated, be able to effectively communicate that widened definition of immorality to a world which isn’t all that interested in attending to the poor?

The issues before the new pope – a man enmeshed in ancient dogma which has not really helped the Catholic church in recent years – are wide and deep. Benedict remained tenaciously connected to the ancient dogma, in spite of many Catholics calling for change. Pope Francis, the first pope to take that name, and who, like so many others, has been moved by the life of Francis of Assisi, will be caught in an interesting place  between the sacred past and the formation of a new sacred present. It will be interesting to watch.

A candid observation …

On the Notion of a Sleeping God

A young minister who had been a pastor for about 10 years sat in front of me, tears in her eyes.

“I just don’t know if I believe anymore,” she said.

“Believe what?” I asked.

“In God…and in the goodness of God.” Her tears began to fall freely, and then she began to sob. Her shoulders shook violently and the sobs came from a deep place, like from the pit of her very soul.

After a while, her sobbing slowed down, her shoulders relaxed, but she looked at me with such pain in her eyes that I looked away. It hurt me to see that much pain in one who, I knew, had come into ministry with such high expectations and such joy.

“I can’t do this,” she said, finally. “Why would God put me in a place where I can’t do what God has called me to do?”

I  didn’t answer right away. From where I sat, she had done a lot. She had overcome barriers. She had ignored being slighted by male ministers in the city where she worked, and just plowed ahead, forging paths for women who would come after her. She had embraced the poor, encouraged her flock to take care of “the least of these,” and her faith had been an example to, well, to me. And yet, here she sat.

As I listened to her, I remember having had a conversation with another pastor, this one a male, who asked me to read a book, Your Pastor is an Endangered Species. This colleague expressed the exasperation that pastors normally feel from dealing with the stuff they don’t teach you in seminary. My colleague said, “You have to really have a call from God to do this, or you won’t last.”  I knew what he was talking about.

But this young woman before me was expressing emotional pain the likes of which I had not seen in a while. She felt like a failure. She was unsure of what she was doing “wrong.” She could not seem to find her “place” in her role as pastor. What she did know was that she entered loving God and wanting to serve God in this way, but now she wasn’t so sure she had heard God right. And…she wasn’t sure she believed in God anymore.

She was expressing through her sobs what Benedict XVI expressed this week as he talked about his papacy, the feeling that sometimes, God sleeps through the crises that come with our attempts to serve.

“I cannot pray like I used to,” she said, her tears multiplying. “It seems like God doesn’t hear, or doesn’t care.” I reminded her that many in the Bible felt like that, too, as a way of reminding her that what she was feeling was not unique or different. That was no consolation, however. Something had happened that had crushed her to her soul.

It occurred to me as I listened to her that, as a pastor, you have to understand that there will be plenty of valley times, where you don’t feel like you’re doing anything right or that God or the people whom you serve care…and you have to be willing  to stand through that very lonely time, absorb the loneliness, and wait for God to bring the comfort that only God can bring.

My young friend, however, was in a different place. She was burned up and burned out.  She said she felt like her very faith had been scrubbed out of her soul.  She was always a loner, but now had isolated herself even more. I felt like I was looking at a younger version of myself.

“I am going to quit,” she said finally. “I cannot do this anymore. I love God, but I cannot do this anymore.”  Her sobbing resumed.

I didn’t want to tell her that Jesus had felt her kind of frustration, too. Somehow, I knew that wasn’t going to fly. In her state of mind, she would have dismissed that as religious rhetoric and not at all realistic. Jesus was the son of God, for goodness’ sake. So, I kept my Jesus thought to myself.

But I wanted to help her know that she was not alone, that all pastors feel or have felt what she was feeling. I wanted to let her know that churches sometimes are not kind to pastors, but that God really did know and God did care. Knowing that is all you have sometimes. But she wouldn’t have been able to hear it.

After a while, her sobbing stopped and she just sat before me. I waited for her to speak, and after what seemed forever, she finally did.

“I loved my people,” she said, “but they threw me under the bus. I cannot …and I will not …do this anymore.”

I didn’t press her. Whatever it was that happened, she didn’t offer to tell me and I knew not to ask. The wound was still too new. I just asked her to be still for a moment, to pray, and fast, and wait to hear from God.

I wish seminaries would offer courses in dealing with the people of God, and courses in helping would-be pastors identify their personality traits, including strengths and weaknesses, so that they could go into church situations a little more emotionally prepared and armed.  Learning to do Biblical exegesis is good, learning Hebrew and Greek is good, but nothing prepares you for the people/relationship angle of being a pastor. And truthfully, some pastors are good at it, but I would surmise that a whole lot more are not so good.

Those people end up feeling more than the people with good people and administrative skills that “God is sleeping” sometimes.  News commentators kept emphasizing that Benedict was a scholar, not an administrator.  He was a “good man,” but a “bad pope,” someone else wrote.  So, in the office of Pope, Benedict must have felt, must have carried, what my friend was explaining to me…and what I myself felt about me being a pastor as well: that we were/are good people, but not so good at the pastor/pope thing.

My friend resigned from her church. She went back to school to pursue other career options. When I see her, she seems freer, happy, relieved. I would imagine the pope feels that way, too. I don’t know where she is in her struggle to believe in God.

Me? I am realizing anew that though it seems sometimes that God is sleeping, God is never absent.

A candid observation…