My Hope for the Pope
A Super-Feminist, Gay, Lefty Catholic’s Cautious Optimism About Pope Francis
When I first heard the new pope was a Jesuit, I was thrilled. Jesuits are supposed to be smart: They teach a lot, and start universities (Georgetown, Loyola, Seattle University), and do a lot of social justice work. They build houses for people and feed people, they protest against war and violence and corporate greed. Some of them are almost as cool as nuns. Jesuits include guys (and they are all guys, unfortunately) like Father Daniel Berrigan, who was placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list during the Vietnam years for destruction of public property. Berrigan went to prison, got out of prison, protested more, went back to prison, and wrote books. In the early 1980s, when most mainstream Americans were still ignorant, terrified, harmful, bigoted jerks about HIV/AIDS and thought most people who had contracted the virus (gay men, IV drug users, people who had sex with those people) deserved to die, Berrigan did not think so. I saw him give a talk back then, and when he was asked whether Catholics should care for people who had HIV/AIDS, he said, "Of course." He was like (I paraphrase), "Don't be a bigoted jerk." Father Berrigan was not a jerk, and mostly Jesuits aren't, so I was really hopeful about this pope.
But I'm dumb about hope. I hope too fast, too often for things I shouldn't. I fall in hope. Then something happens that I didn't expect, and my hope gets smashed, and I get torn up, pissed off, and gnarled and feel stupid.
I felt stupid a lot when I was thinking about converting to Catholicism. How on earth would I—a super-feminist, female, gay lefty—join a group that's done such stupid, horrible things to gays and females and said the stupidest things about sex? Especially under the archconservative reign of Ratzinger? But I had always loved—and needed—the Christian story of light after dark, life after death, and mercy and forgiveness. I loved the idea of coming to a sacred table with human beings and getting nourishment; I loved and needed the Mystery. It took a long time to realize that I could have the latter—the point of the church—and not take all the crap. Like being an American and believing in the country's possibilities while not supporting imperialism, genocide, war, racism, and greed. It took me a long time to get over the church's, like the government's, attack on gays. One of my friends, when I was struggling with my draw toward the church, asked, "What kind of Catholic do you want to be?" and I realized there were different kinds of Catholics. There were, as there are in most large groups of people, clueless, terrified fundamentalists, but there are also struggling, hopeful, trying-to-be-decent slobs like me. So last year I converted. I took Julian (as in Saint Julian the Hospitaller, about whom Flaubert wrote an awesome story, but also as in Blessed Juliana of Norwich and Vita Sackville-West's drag name) as my confirmation name.
When Jorge Bergoglio, former archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected pope last week, he took Francis for his pope name. Saint Francis of Assisi, as fans of Franco Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon can tell you, was a spoiled rich boy who had a vision in which Jesus asked him to rebuild the church. Francis renounced his power and money to devote himself to service of the church. At first he rebuilt—literally—a run-down chapel outside Assisi with bricks, wood, and mud. He wore a raggedy robe and slept outside; most people thought he was nuts. But some people thought he was onto something good—kind of like Jesus was—and joined him. His band of little bros (the Latin name of the Franciscans, Ordo Fratrum Minorum, more or less translates to that) were poor and humble and they worked hard. Their example helped rebuild the whole church. Most Franciscans back then were not members of the clergy. Francis himself was never ordained as a priest, and he only agreed to be a deacon under pressure. By taking the name Francis, Bergoglio signaled that his papacy might be more about repair and reform than reentrenchment, more caring for the poor than for the rich.
Another thing that gave me hope: Bergoglio wasn't from Italy, or even Europe, so he hadn't been part of the political and financial intrigues of the Vatican. He might be able to clean things up a bit.
He'd set some good examples in Argentina. When he was archbishop, he didn't get into the obscenely wealthy lifestyle some of his predecessors had. He rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals, and went out into the world to talk with people. He visited people who had AIDS and washed their feet and kissed them.
When he made his first address in Rome, he led the people in prayer. Then—and this is the amazing thing—he asked the people he's been asked to lead to pray for him.
I'm not really sure what praying is. Maybe it's trying to make yourself stop, for a moment or two, your own noise. Maybe it's sitting with other people and trying to understand what they are going through, or even coming up with something you could do or say to comfort them. Maybe it's saying someone's name. Or maybe it's saying thanks. Maybe it's saying at last, inside your head, or even out loud to someone who won't crap on you, that you could use some help. Maybe it's saying love.
So maybe the fact that Francis began his popedom not by pontificating, but rather by asking for people's prayers, means he wants to be a pope who's not a monarch but a leader and servant who can listen.
By the time he asked for our prayers, I needed hope again. I'd already lost the hope I'd had before.
But some of what I learned about Bergoglio smashed my hope.
In 2010, when Argentina was debating marriage equality, Archbishop Bergoglio led the fight against it, calling the vote "a scheme to destroy God's plan." He also said that adoption of kids by gays and lesbians "discriminated against children."
Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I thought (I was not swearing, I was praying). Him, too? The church has yet to fully confess to the full extent of the sex-abuse scandal or its systematic, gender-exclusive, secretive, and institutionally supported cover-up; it has never fully recompensed its victims; it has not made the moves necessary to dismantle the institutional structures that allowed it—and here's another bishop moralizing about sexuality? If this were not so harmful, so criminal, it would be funny. But it is not.
A Jesuit has never been a pope; they're rarely bishops. This is another good thing about them—they don't go after power. But sometimes they are appointed and accept, and I thank God they do. One of the few Jesuit bishops, Carlo Maria Martini was archbishop of Milan. Shortly after his death last year, Corriere della Sera printed an interview in which Martini said: "The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the Pope and the bishops. The pedophilia scandals oblige us to take a journey of transformation." I hope Pope Francis is capable of the change of heart he'll need to lead the church toward such transformation.
He might have it in him.
In 2012, two years after he campaigned against gay marriage, Bergoglio rebuked Argentinean priests who had refused to baptize the children of unwed moms. Bergoglio accused the priests of hypocrisy. He also told them: "Jesus teaches us another way: Go out. Go out and share your testimony, go out and interact with your brothers, go out and share, go out and ask" (emphasis mine).
I love the idea of a pope, or any bishop, archbishop, deacon, priest, senator, president, director of operations, chair of the board, or person given authority asking the people he (it's usually a he) has been asked to serve who they are and what they need and how he, the servant-leader, can both serve and lead the people.
Jesus didn't come here to condemn us human lumps; he came to show us mercy and forgiveness and the goodness of the just and loving heart. He came to show there can be life even after you feel like you've been dead, and that even after someone's been horrible or had horrible things done to them, they can have another chance.
This morning when I sat down to revise this essay, I read an article about Rob Portman, a Republican senator from Ohio, who in 1996 voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, and in 1999 voted to bar gay couples in DC from adopting kids, but has now decided to support same-sex marriage. This happened because his son had come out to him as gay; a personal encounter changed this father. If a Republican can make that change, then maybe the pope, called by us Catholics the Holy Father, who has already shown such compassion for the poor, and has already changed some of the culture of the Vatican, can have a similar change of heart.
This is what I'm trying to hope for now.