As Pope Francis concludes his widely celebrated visit to the American Northeast this weekend, it’s clear that he is effortlessly transcending his faith tradition and leaving in his wake a flood of near universal goodwill, during a time when skepticism and cynicism toward organized religion may be at its zenith, with high-profile Christians making the news for all the wrong reasons.
Here is how it’s happening and what Christians of all stripes can learn from Pope Francis.
1) He leads with love.
This is the heart of Francis’ message; the extravagant, lavish, scandalously diverse love of God for all people; not some people or deserving people or appropriately repentant people or morally acceptable people or saved people, but all those who have breath and beating hearts.
The Pope isn’t defined by the stuff he hates or the people he attacks or the pulpit-slamming tirades he unleashes. Most of all he doesn’t broker in the caveated love that so many Evangelicals specialize in, as they preach a paradoxical Gospel of heavily conditioned Grace. For Francis love leads and love wins, because his God is love. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)
2) He walks well the walk.
Whether it’s the way he eschews the customary historic trappings of his position or the modest manner in which he travels or the concerted efforts he makes to be real and reachable, Pope Francis exists in such stark contrast to the all-too familiar image of the sequestered, pampered Evangelical megachurch pastors we see so often submerged in bloated opulence, all the while championing a homeless, poor, street preaching rabbi the claim we’re all supposed to follow.
Through crystal clear acts of quiet humility and gentle compassion, Francis is allowing us to tangibly see Jesus in real-time. For all his wise words, his very life is his greatest sermon.
3) He fearlessly stretches the faithful.
Insider pushback and politics be damned. Whether affirming the humanity of all people or chastising corrupt governments or calling out the unbridled greed of modern Christians, this Pope does what Jesus always did so well; he gives hope to the marginalized and maligned, while simultaneously prodding the cozy power holders out of their apathetic slumber.
The really beautiful thing about Francis is how he (in such opposition to so many Evangelical leaders), doesn’t selectively use the Bible to curry favor with his core on one or two hot button issues. Instead he allows the naked, unadorned, in-context words of Jesus to challenge and convict everyone equally, pulling all listening from where they are to a more loving expression of faith.
4) He elevates all people.
Jesus preached and modeled that he came to be “servant to all”. This is one of the tragically discarded aspects of his ministry in the modern Evangelical world, where high-profile pastors and celebrity leaders are so often insulated from and elevated above the very people they are called to care for as they grow in influence and notoriety.
Rather than being selfless servants who kneel to wash filthy feet and who gladly break bread with the most disregarded in their midst, too many current Christian leaders preach on elevated pulpits and massively lit stages bathed in applause and accolades—and they simply never climb down. Francis (as Jesus did) intentionally lowers himself so that others may be lifted up.
5) He effortlessly exudes joy.
Preacher Billy Sunday once said, “If there is not joy in your religion, you have a leak in your religion.” This, perhaps more than anything is Francis’ sadly unique calling card and what is causing the watching world to so bend their ears to his words. His joy is not relegated to a few rote platitudes in an otherwise angry, vitriolic, mean-spirited display. His appreciation for life and people form the sweet, consistent core of his ministry and comprise his loudest testimony; not condemnation or war rhetoric or flavor-of-the-day boycotts or brimstone-fueled social media rants.
You get the feeling that Francis loves people; not just their eternal souls—he loves them here and now and his effervescent gratitude in each moment is something that can’t be scripted or manufactured or created with a heavy web presence, a book deal, and some glossy head shots. The “joy of the Lord” truly appears to be his strength.
As someone who was raised in the Catholic tradition, I’ve been all too familiar with the mistakes and missteps and sometimes the downright criminal history of the Church. Yet in an extremely short time Pope Francis has made so many good decisions and taken on so many brave, previously unfought battles, and I am filled with gratitude of what he has done and hope for what he will continue to do. His theology and ministry are not faultless, yet the same can be said for anyone who has ever walked the planet (with one big exception).
For now, he has made me proud to be associated with the faith of my childhood and he is reminding us all, that most people don’t really hate authentic faith or reject Christ as much as we’ve been told; they just haven’t really seen either all that much in Evangelical Christians who have had the spotlight and the microphone and the platform these days. (You all know who you are).
Francis is engineering a radical revolution of love that simply reeks of Jesus, and people all over the world from every faith tradition and from no faith tradition are noticing and rejoicing.
I pray that my Evangelical Christian brothers and sisters, especially those in leadership are paying close attention.
This is a teachable moment.
(Note: News broke on 9/30 about the Pope secretly meeting with Kim Davis while visiting the US. Even if true, this does not in itself nullify the work he has been doing and it doesn’t change the reflections above regarding the balance of his ministry. It does however mean that the Pope needs to be accountable for the visit itself and for the message it sends the LGBT community and those who support them. As with many faith leaders and with each other—we still have a long way to go.)