An 'Unsettling:' Non-Catholics and Pope Francis

By Benedict Varnum 3-14-2013 | Series:
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
A man sells newspapers outside St Peter's Square on Thursday morning. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

When I heard about the white smoke on Wednesday, I wrote on my Facebook wall: “Habent Papum.”  My own church doesn’t use Latin, so I had to use Google translate to figure out how to change the “We have a pope” of “Habemus Papam” into “They have a pope.” I got a few good laughs for my cleverness before a Catholic friend humbly reminded me that it wasn’t just their pope, and that I’d have to deal with him too ... he has no idea how prophetic his words have turned out to be.

You see, I didn’t expect to tune in at all to the election of the pope. I was raised in the Catholic Church and received its early sacraments before my family joined the Episcopal Church (my father’s tradition). I spent plenty of time in high school and after defending its practices and traditions against atheists and Protestant friends and colleagues, and I more than made up for that by pressing hard on my Catholic friends on the nuances I didn’t understand. But mostly I only paid attention when the Catholic Church said something publicly or took a political stand on an issue I cared about.

But on Wednesday, the white smoke got in my eyes, and rather than confusing my sight, it’s made things a little clearer.

Through Lent, I’ve been reading Christ on Trial by the Right Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams (who recently retired as Archbishop of Canterbury – Anglicanism’s closest parallel to the symbolic unity the Bishop of Rome holds in Catholicism). In reflecting on the Gospel of Luke, Williams reminds us that when someone is different from us – an “Other” – we can hear their story one of two ways. On the one hand, we can try to bring it into our world, our language, our way of making sense of things – to be comfortable that our system works for ordering things, and the world will behave how we expect it to.

Or we can practice listening to the strangeness of the “Other,” and recognize that it unsettles us. This unsettling is the reminder that however we make sense of the world, it will fall short of how large the world is. And as Williams reminds us, this is part and parcel to who God is: God is larger than we can possibly make the world, and we can remember that when we see that the world is bigger than we’ve tried to make it.

This means that when our way of making sense of the world breaks down – when we’re unsettled – we’re seeing at least one thing more clearly: that we can’t see everything.

Williams quotes Stanley Hauerwas: “The true moral question is what kind of community ought we to be so that we can welcome and care for the other in our midst without that ‘otherness’ being used to justify discrimination.”

As I watched my Facebook feed fill up with congratulations and immediate condemnations of the new pope, I saw both.

There are plenty of arguments that someone could cry “hypocrisy!” at the notion that the Catholic Church (or many other churches) be offered the hospitality of care without discrimination, but in the weeks before Lent, the “unsettling” strangeness of listening to this other tradition has launched me into the heart of my Christianity, and of the story of the trial of Jesus.

If I let myself be ruled by jealousy of the Catholic Church’s wealth or numbers, or the pain of language I sometimes hear about a “wounded communion” with my own tradition, or a concern that some of their bishops might not recognize causes I’m passionate about, then I am a smart enough man to play the game of those ancient judges of Christ. I could find labels to put to the Catholic Church. I could show where its followers seem to “compete” with other principles I’ve established to guide my moral world. I could call to others to stand with me and insist to them that there is a danger that this new man presents, a man Catholics would claim as a leader and teacher to stand separate from others.

I have the knowledge to teach a crowd to yell, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

But today, by the grace of God, perhaps I also have the wisdom not to. And perhaps, as some of those around me begin precisely that attempt, I can recognize that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, truly is standing in persona Christi – not because he is perfected beyond his humanity, but because we in our sin seek to debase him of it – to re-cast him in our own languages and values and proclaim that he is not the same as us, and so must be cast down.

That is a sobering truth.

Oh, there are yet things that I would offer as desperate challenges to my Catholic friends. I haven’t abandoned my baptismal promise to respect the dignity of every human being, and remind others to as well (Catholics included). I still feel called to “take up the unpopular position of being the person who asks about the specific costs, about the tragic element in public decisions,” and “the still more unpopular task of saying that this particular cost is unacceptable,” as Williams writes later in his book. These duties hold true when we see someone being left outside the systems of order and authority, whether those systems come from our political life, the teachings of other churches, or the teachings of my own.

But the regard of the world, focused on the strange “Other”-ness of a few dozen men praying and speaking in one of the more beautiful and known sacred spaces of the world for several days, has reminded me that whatever “knowledge” my own systems of ordering the world can give me about Roman Catholicism, I will only ever have an incomplete story. And if I decide I don’t need the incomplete parts, and box up my world with what I already know, then I will have done my best to shut God out, and ally myself with systems that ignore all kinds of “Others” whose stories are never heard – not because God stands with the Catholic Church and not mine, but because in confessing our incompleteness, we remember that completeness belongs to God’s wisdom, and not our own.

It’s an “unsettling,” as Williams uses the word. But what wisdom might we learn if we can keep the unsettled, incomplete story, listening to one another for more, rather than wrapping the story up with the world-we-understand?  What might happen next if we can find ways to stop standing with the judges in the trial of Jesus, and instead simply stand still, and look at him?

We are human, and time will grab at us. It surely will not be long before some other passion requires of me that I mark Pope Francis with a label that puts him at a safe distance from something I hold dear.

But for a moment on Wednesday, the Bishop of Rome, this symbol from another tradition, became for me an image of the person of Christ, an invitation into “the intelligence of the victim,” however strange it might seem to my own ordering systems for the world that this powerful figure in the world’s largest Christian tradition might be called a “victim.”

And if the office of the pope can continue to be a reminder that unsettles me, and calls me to seek out other victims and their truths, whether I then need to speak it to Rome or Canterbury or Washington or myself, then it is indeed true that he is a pope for me as well. And maybe I ought to have written after all, Habemus Papam.

The Rev. Ben Varnum holds a Masters of Divinity from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, and serves as a priest in the Diocese of Kansas of the Episcopal Church.

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