When I returned from my short visit to Rome recently, a surprising number of people asked me, Did you see the Pope? Well, almost. On one afternoon we were shown around some parts of St Peter’s where the public generally are not able to go; and as we were leaving we saw a large contingent of photographers gathered in expectation that the Pope was about to arrive. We had to move on, so we almost saw him!
I’ve wondered about the frequency of the question. Pope Francis has attracted a lot of interest and admiration, amongst people who are generally not interested in the Church or who might call themselves ‘not religious’. This was evident in a conversation at a medical centre, where the receptionist asked me, ‘Did you see the Pope?’. She and another person there talked about him for a few minutes. One of them said: ‘None of my contemporaries go to church. But they all like him.’
I ventured the comment that somehow he represents to us what we would like to see. Perhaps we wish the church could be more like …—and the words I was reaching after were words like genuine, caring, actually not first of all concerned about the image of the institution, more interested in people and their needs.
And then someone also wondered if he is really like this, or is it a media image. How can someone get to be Pope and not be concerned about the institution? I suggested that he must be, but perhaps is concerned that it should continue but change, and be more like Jesus. That, it seems to me, is Pope Francis’ primary commitment, to be a follower of Jesus who urges others to do the same.
It seems to me there is in fact a deep longing in many people, for something like a genuine faith. There is a will to believe in something meaningful, something more than ourselves and the latest gadgets and gourmet foods.
Hugh Mackay has written about this in his insightful book, Beyond Belief: How we find meaning, with or without religion. His chapter titled SBNR is focussed on this theme. SBNR stands for Spiritual But Not Religious. It expresses the concern for meaning, including meaningful faith, but without institutional religion.
In a recent essay Tim Costello has commented on the popularity of Pope Francis. The essay is in the volume I edited in honour of Ken Manley, (Baptist Identity into the Twenty First Century) and is titled World mission: Seeking the prophetic Baptist voice. Tim Costello resists the view, popular among ‘mission’ writers, that the church needs to change in ways that he describes as ‘becoming all things to all people’. Rather, Tim argues for a more prophetic voice, speaking up for those disadvantaged, attending to the voiceless and disempowered—and this is precisely why Pope Francis is so popular. He is a thoroughly institutional-religion man. That’s OK, if that religion become the voice of the poor and marginalised.
So with these two colleagues I too am keen to encourage a more authentic ‘faith’, with or without ‘religion’. We’ve got to get beyond religion: to ethics, to social engagement that promotes justice and inclusion, in all aspects of society. As a teacher of theology, my conviction has always been that theology must be available to and done with ‘the people’, all the people, and in a whole range of contexts, not just ‘church’ and definitely not just in colleges or universities. (My own essay in that same book argues this case.)
If people of faith, all faiths, private faith and institutional faiths, become people of values, people of justice, people of community inclusion, then a new story will emerge. It will be both a new story and an old story. It will find its resonances in the ancient Jewish stories of exile and restoration. It will be a story that finds resonances in all faith traditions. It will recover the image of Jesus the prophet of justice and healing. Different people will have something to contribute, and to receive, from each other, from the many cultures, traditions and practices that make up this new community.
What will it mean to do this? What will it cost us? It will mean opening ourselves to learn from each other, and in that way to value in new ways what we have always valued, more deeply and practically. It will mean sacrificing the idea that only our way is always right, or knows it all.
And it will mean sharing this ongoing story: whether or not we see the Pope. We will see each other. Even better! I think Francis would be happy about that.