Even as a non-Catholic, I was filled with hope when an Argentine cardinal said to be passionate about serving the poor stepped onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square as Pope Francis.
By taking the name of a church reformer, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio promised a better day for an ossified institution whose people beg for hope while hierarchs defend medieval power and pomp.
In greeting the crowd, the new pope showed a common touch that could repurpose a global movement from being lost in scandal and self-serving.
By standing in silence and bowing his head for the crowd’s blessing, Francis showed a humility that could inspire believers grown weary of Roman arrogance.
In ways that world leaders rarely manage, Francis conveyed sincerity and commitment to a singular vision of servanthood. Whether that vision survives remains to be seen. But for now he read the moment: a vast constituency eager for something deeper than palace intrigue, something closer to Jesus than elaborate processions of old men wearing costly garments.
Perhaps he will read the rest of the moment: Women eager for the place that Jesus conferred on them but early male church leaders took away. Young people eager for faith in action, not encyclicals issued from above. Dark-skinned people eager for recognition. Homosexuals eager for a place at the table without having to seek ordination first.
To be sure, Francis will meet a firestorm of resistance at every level. The Roman Curia has faced down reformists before. But if Francis can continue as he began, there is hope.
That hope matters to all Christians. Each of our denominations and institutions struggles against the same demons: Mammon offering wealth as the ultimate measure of life, power seeking allies at the expense of fighting oppression and injustice, and hucksters promising magic. It’s the temptation of Jesus all over again. It always is.
But first things first. Just days after being elected pontiff, Francis is discovering what other leaders discover: Their past eventually catches up with them. In his case, it’s scrutiny for his possible role in Argentina’s “Dirty War” of the 1970s, when some church leaders curried favor with the military dictatorship by looking the other way when people were tortured and “disappeared.”
The church hierarchy calls it “defamation” to raise such questions. But as any penitent knows, a desire to move forward must be accompanied by candor about the past.
It’s the same issue we all face when we want to move forward. Reconciliation, restoration and renewal must begin in the swamp of needing to start over, not the gossamer of lofty hopes.
The first test of Francis’ reign, therefore, might not be his steel in reforming the Curia, but his candor about his own experience in Argentina.
This is especially critical for religious leaders. Religion tends to make compromises in order to preserve itself. The Jewish hierarchy chose Rome’s imperial favor over God’s promise of a Messiah. The early church sought the emperor’s favor and then allied itself with monarchs and dictators.
German churches remained largely silent during Hitler’s rise. Dutch Reformed leaders provided theological cover for apartheid in South Africa. White religious leaders in the South supported slavery and then segregation. Even today, churches invite bigots into their pulpits and call it patriotism.
To move toward God’s Easter Day, we must first acknowledge the darker days when we turned against God and each other.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)
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