The election of Pope Francis promises to be a defining social and historical moment. The leadership of the Church which is home to a sixth of the world’s population has passed to a non-European, and the social, spiritual and political repercussions will be felt widely. But the ripples are spreading further than the Catholic Church, and it is with surprise, as a non-Catholic, that I find myself enchanted by this humble priest from Buenos Aires.
I grew up attending a Baptist church with my family in south-west London, where I was by and large very happy, and where I picked up what I now call a “Sunday school faith” – basic Christian principles and a few Bible stories – but no great personal interaction with God. By the time I came to study at University College London I had all but stopped attending church. This wasn’t due to any great apostasy, but rather a gentle drifting away towards things I found more interesting to do on a Sunday morning, such as sport. I then spent my first two years of my degree living what I suppose could be called a secular life – not necessarily rejecting my Christian upbringing, but without involving it in my day-to-day decision-making.
But during the summer holidays before my third and final year, a series of events conspired to lead me back towards my childhood faith. Perhaps the most significant was finding myself a place to live in Netherhall House, the Opus Dei-promoted student residence in Hampstead.
It was at Netherhall, which houses mainly Catholics but also people of other denominations and faiths, that I first learned that I was a “Protestant”. When I moved in I had described my religion on the application form as “Christian”. I was asked by the hall director what exactly sort of Christian I considered myself to be. This led me to brush up on my sketchy memories of GCSE history and remember that the story of the Catholic Church in Britain is one of great pain. I had to accept for the first time that, regardless of how well I knew the history, my faith was not a neutral, private matter. It had political and emotional meaning to others.
It was also at Netherhall that I was pleased to discover that I was not in fact a “Protestant”. During my two years living among, and growing to love, a group of deeply spiritual Catholic men, I discovered that many of the beliefs I had held about their Church were hurtful prejudices. I also came to realise that it is detrimental both to my own faith, and to those of others around me, to define myself “in protest against” the Catholic Church, even if, strictly speaking, that is a part of my theological heritage. Through many late-night discussions with those I now consider my brothers, we found that, although there are many important differences of theology that merit respectful discussion, there are far more things about which we passionately agree.
I am aware this may seem unpalatable to some from both camps, but I have come to believe that the conservative wing of the Catholic Church and the charismatic Evangelical tradition that I come from had gone almost full circle and found common ground on many of the issues that each hold dear. For instance, both have a firm belief in the power of God to intervene in the world through healings and other miracles and both are vocal in society about their views on conventional Christian morality. These are two areas which the more liberal parts of worldwide Christianity have drifted away from. Above all, the one thing that I believe brings us to a point of unity – if not complete union – is an insistence on the divinity of Jesus, and the corresponding drive to bring his love and healing into the world.
But it is not primarily theological convergence that draws me to Pope Francis. Rather, it is the extraordinary humility with which he has taken up his tenure. I have been extremely impressed with the various “stunts” he has played: going in person to pay the bill at the hotel where he stayed before the conclave; holding the Maundy Thursday service at a youth prison and washing the feet of a Muslim woman, taking up residence in the Vatican guest house rather than the large papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace; and personally calling his newsagent in Buenos Aires to cancel his subscriptions. I am, fundamentally, inspired by his ability to uphold and celebrate orthodox Christian principles in a way that creates open and deeply respectful dialogue with those outside the Church.
His acts impress me not only for their imagination, but also because they seem to set the tone for how he intends to conduct his papacy. I believe the Church around the world is at a crossroads. The biggest challenge Christians must face is the shocking level of poverty and injustice in our world. These are two things that God throughout the Bible and history has asked Christians to alleviate. But we have not always taken this part of our faith very seriously. As a Jesuit, Francis has lived under a vow of poverty. Even as the cardinal of Argentina he chose to live in a simple apartment, commuting by bus to his office every day and spending much time with the poor and outcast.
Although the Church bears many ugly scars there is a real opportunity to make a beautiful offering for God by serving the poor in unity. While there are many important lessons learned and wounds suffered throughout the Church’s history, is it naïve to hope that we can let them just be history, leaving them like folded bedclothes in an empty tomb?
Many young people like me are growing up without the deep-rooted emotions that older generations may have in relation to divisions among Christians. If, as I found living in Netherhall, we can grow not just to respect, but also to love one another, then it is within this context of love that we can then discuss the things we may disagree about. We may never reach satisfactory compromises, but let us, above all, be united in love.
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