In case you didn’t notice, Pope Francis’ first in depth interview pretty much blew up the internet. My Facebook feed exploded with Pope-love (especially from my Protestant friends, most of whom, I think, secretly envy their Catholic friends for having such a cool leader.) Buzzfeed did one of their patented picture-lists on the interview – lists that they have recently been reserving primarily for cute puppy stories and pictures of Clint Eastwood’s shirtless son. Andrew Sullivan, one of the top bloggers in the country, pumped out post after glowing post about the Pope, pausing only periodically to pass out from over-excitement.
I read all the highlights and about half of the full transcript of the interview, and one thing in particular stood out to me: this man did not break any new theological or social ground. He’s a definite Jesus-person, still opposes abortion and homosexuality, and has pretty much kept himself entirely in line with the whole canon of Catholic teaching. Anyone looking for a shift in Catholicism’s teachings on abortion, contraception, homosexuality, or women would have been disappointed.
So what made this interview so popular that the internet exploded?
It was not what he said (e.g. What is the church’s position on abortion, gay rights, etc.) but how he said it.
When asked “who are you?”, he said that he was a sinner, loved by God. When asked about why he chose not to live in the Papal apartments, he talked about how he couldn’t live without community. When asked about his leadership style, he was humble and freely confessed his faults. When asked directly about homosexuality, he said, (and I lifted this quote straight from one of my gay friend’s glowing status updates about Pope Francis),”A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, whether I approved or disapproved of homosexuality. I replied, ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person'”.
Simply by communicating with humility, compassion, and love, he did something that the world absolutely did not expect from one of its religious leaders.
In the process, he also happened to get everyone’s attention.
In church circles, we tend to argue ceaselessly about the correct doctrinal or social positions to take on the various issues of our day. We often delude ourselves into thinking that if we just found the right combination of positions – conservative, orthodox, reformed, progressive, emergent, etc., that the world would somehow be drawn to us.
However, perhaps this interview teaches us, (from all varieties of religious belief and unbelief) a different message. In the end, it is not what we believe, but how we hold what we believe that people find compelling or repelling. If I believe in peace, justice, and inclusion, but do so in a snarky, elitist, and judgmental way, no one’s going to be convinced by my arguments, no matter how brilliant they are. If I believe in Jesus Christ’s importance in my life and in the lives of others, but do so in a way that makes me greedy, angry, and scornful, then no one’s going to want the Jesus I’m offering.
I’ve thought through about a thousand ways to wrap this up, but perhaps the simplest way is this.
People paid attention to Pope Francis because they feel like he would love them if he met them. They’re probably right.
Perhaps we’d have more credibility if people felt the same way about us.