Pope Francis has made the news with regularity, having recently completed his first visit to South America since being named the new pontiff.
Practically all accounts I have seen of his papal visit were glowing. The crowds were large and enthusiastic and Pope Francis made an important stop to one of Brazil’s most notorious and impoverished favelas.
The popular press made much of the fact that he refused to pass judgment on gay and lesbian people, a gesture that many found encouraging, although the church was quick to clarify that the church’s teaching remains that homosexual genital sex is sinful.
The address that most caught my attention, however, was one where he pretty much laid into his own church and leadership for focusing far too much on institutional maintenance while ignoring the needs of the masses and abandoning the poor. Straying from his prepared remarks he scolded his leadership, imploring them to begin reaching out to the populace.
Observers make much of the fact that Roman Catholics, though still by far the largest religious population in South America, have been steadily and consistently losing adherents at the same time that evangelical, Pentecostal Protestant churches are growing in the slums and amongst the poor. Viewed through this lens Pope Francis was merely exhorting his church to stop losing “market share” to competitors.
There is probably some credence to this interpretation of his remarks, but I would like to think that he was far more sincere than this. Almost any religious leader could make a similar speech to his or her congregation; most of the religious bodies in our nation are far too inwardly focused.
Paying for buildings, meeting monthly financial obligations, sometimes placating influential church members and offering services for the flock within the walls require an enormous amount of time and money, often leaving little energy or capital to reach out the larger world and wider society.
The growth of the church has historically taken place when devoted Christians, led by a fresh, new vision, abandoned old practices and opened their eyes, hearts and pocketbooks to a breathtaking, sometimes misunderstood, often criticized new outreach. Most genuine revival has that element to it.
Of course, such ministry is already happening in many settings in the Catholic (and Protestant) world. But many Catholic and Protestant parishes have a long way to go before they rediscover and recover a love that takes them far beyond their own walls in radical new ways.
It will be interesting to see if Pope Francis can inspire his church to return to this humble mission. But wondering whether this new Pope can be effective is to avoid a more basic question: what kind of impact are you, the reader, making in moving outside your comfort zone to relate to the needs of the world?
We ought to hear the words of Pope Francis as if they were addressed to each of us.
Creede Hinshaw, of Macon, is a retired Methodist minister.