A few weeks ago my wife and I, along with a good friend and fellow North Carolina Baptist minister, traveled together for a much needed vacation along the Atlantic. When ministers get together, the conversation rarely leaves the genre of general religion or greater church life and this was most certainly the case for us. We shared stories about ministry and dreamed together about Christianity experiencing a resurgence in the 21st century, once again capturing the wonder of the culture in which it dwells.
One particular day, as we explored the coastal town of our retreat, it seemed that the topic the public most wanted to discuss was the one to which we had devoted our entire lives and careers: religion and the Church. Earlier that afternoon white smoke had poured from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel indicating that the College of Cardinals had elected a new pope to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. We learned of this development as we walked up on a dozen or so local artists huddled around CNN’s coverage of the event. As we approached, a ponytailed, Hell’s Angel-looking gentleman smiled at us and said, “Welcome friends, we have a pope!”
Being a pastor, I just had to engage these new friends, especially since they had welcomed us Baptists to celebrate with them in the election of their new leader. I asked the man if he was Catholic and he shared with me that he was baptized Catholic but had left his faith many years ago. As he shared his story, another person spoke up and shared something similar, and then another. Standing around waiting for the announcement of the new pope were practicing and former Catholics, Catholics out of communion with the church and those who attend only for Christmas and Easter as well as those from other Christian denominations and even a few non-believers. There was something we all held in common during those few moments together, however — we all had a new pope.
In the weeks since the election of Pope Francis, I have reflected on my experience in the presence of that reluctantly faithful congregation on a day the whole world seemed to be Catholic, considering what it means for all of us, even we Baptists, to have a new pope. Although I have always found the Roman Church interesting and am a firm supporter of ecumenical partnerships, there are many places I simply cannot follow the Vatican doctrinally. Still, I have always considered Catholics to be equal members of the body of Christ. Since I at times find myself in better agreement with my Catholic colleagues than a great many of the Baptists I know and have always learned a great deal from their witness, I have decided for two reasons to embrace the idea that “we” have a new pope.
First, the Catholic Church still makes up the largest Christian body in the world. It is a safe bet to assume that when non-Christians think of Christianity, they at some point consider the actions of Rome. Christianity will not experience the aforementioned cultural resurgence unless the Vatican is involved. It is for that reason, among others, that I pray for the Catholic Church and the pope often. I pray that they continue to bear witness to the gospel, that they are true to the ethics of the Kingdom of God, and that they, along with other Christian groups, embrace a more modern expression of Christian faith. This is not to say that all of Christianity today still goes through Rome; I do believe, however, that when the Catholic Church thrives, all of Christianity will thrive.
Second, I really like Pope Francis and his practical Christ-like actions have impressed me early. Prior to becoming pope, Francis was known for his concern for the poor and his commitment to reconciliation. Since his election, Francis has refused to dwell in the elaborate papal apartment, opting instead to reside in the Vatican guest house and has attended daily mass held for Vatican workers. When Francis first met with pope emeritus Benedict XVI to pray for the future of the Church, he declined the take the place of honor and prayed alongside Benedict on the same bench, humbly declaring, “We are brothers.” The pope broke Church tradition when he washed the feet of two young women during a Maundy Thursday service and prayed for world peace during his first Easter homily. In short, I like Francis because he has come out of the gates bearing witness as a servant and is already redirecting the focus of the Church.
So for now, I embrace that we have a new pope and declare “habemus papam” alongside our Catholic brothers and sisters. I think there is much we Baptists can learn from Pope Francis and the new direction he seems to be leading the Vatican. This Easter, may we remember that we serve a resurrected Christ who came to serve and not to be served. It is my prayer that the actions of our new pope will inspire all of Christianity to return to the practical acts of that tradition.
Alex Gallimore (alexcgallimore@gmail. com) is pastor of Hester Baptist Church in Oxford, N.C.