Born Jorge Mario Bogoglio in Buenos Aires, he studied to be a chemical technician and taught literature and psychology in Argentina colleges before earning a doctorate in theology. Overcoming his mother’s initial objections, he entered the priesthood in 1969. As he rose from titular bishop of Auca to archbishop of Buenos Aires and then to cardinal in 2091, he was already earning a reputation for his humility and simplicity. He was at the top of candidates following the death of Pope John Paul the II and then named 266th Pope on March 13, 2013.
One wouldn’t be surprised at any man – even the Pope – being changed by such an elevation. And yet, Francis has brought a new sense of kindness and dare I say, spirituality, to his position that makes him unlike any other. Not only has he challenged church doctrine and points of view, he has openly talked about actions and viewpoints that he does not see as Christian in substance.
Pope Francis’ connection to the poor and suffering, and his insistence of society’s obligations to them, reaches beyond rhetoric of religion, which tells us to care for the least among us. This man teaches us by example. He visits slums, washes the feet of the homeless, takes the faces of small, impoverished children into his hands.
His voice is loud and clear (and sometimes exasperated) as he takes the powerful to task for the systems of inequity and lack of attention to those most in need. Indeed, Francis seems most at home and happy when chatting with villagers and those who have nothing to offer but their thanks and love.
He seems closer to the descriptions of Jesus that I heard growing up than most of the “spiritual” voices in today’s world. And despite those who tell him to stick to his place, Francis continues to do – well, not that. Whether speaking on protecting the environment, questioning orthodoxy, or challenging our attitudes, he sticks his neck out for what many would call the greater good. It seems to often infuriate those who otherwise speak of piety and devotion to their higher power.
Which has sometimes delighted those of is us who don’t necessarily subscribe to traditional faith bases and institutions. We are continually surprised to find ourselves deeply affected by this man whose beliefs and leanings in so many areas would seem to be radically different – and sometimes diametrically opposed – to our own. While other figures pack folks into mega-churches and decry those they deem sinners, Francis works on as an advocate and friend to those who need one most.
I don’t misunderstand his role, or his adherence to the laws and norms of Catholicism. I dont expect that he will suddenly shift from the church on every issue or doctrine. As its leader, he is bound to it. I will though, take great comfort in a voice that rises above the ever-present language of divisiveness to remind us that at our core, we are one people.
In one lifetime, long ago, I was a Sunday School teacher, explaining to the smallest students about Jesus and how he taught people to live. It’s the part of my experience in the church that has had the most lasting effect.
“Love thy neighbor”
“Do unto others”
“Blessed are the meek”
These are the lessons that, all these years later and far beyond the church, still resonate for me. And though I will surely never get to tell him in person, I hope that Pope Francis continues to teach them to all who will listen.