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What Pope Francis Meant

What Pope Francis Meant
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The inimitable Stephen Colbert, host of "The Tonight Show" and "foremost Catholic" (his words, not mine), whose fingers are ever pressed on the pulse of American culture, weighed in on the recent (and bewildering) dust-up between presidential candidate Donald Trump and Pope Francis. With laser accuracy, Colbert took the measure of the men by pointing out what they have in common: "You both believe you're infallible, and you both wear very silly things on your heads," he quipped, making reference to Mr. Trump's much-discussed hair and the pontiff's less discussed, but no less significant, miter, the headdress he wears during mass.

But there was no laughter before Mr. Colbert put his spin on the now-famous exchange of commentaries by the Pope and Mr. Trump, set off by a reporter's question to the pontiff on his plane returning from Mexico where he had presided earlier on February 17, 2016 over a huge Mass in the border city of Ciudad Juárez. Francis was asked about the Republican presidential aspirant, who has made controversial pronouncements on immigration and avowals to force Mexico to build a wall along the U.S. border, as well as to increase deportations from the United States, one of the cornerstones of his campaign.

"A person who thinks only of building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian," replied the pontiff, adding: "I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way in this I give the benefit of the doubt."

Trump blasted the Pope's remarks as, among other things, "Disgraceful," topping that off with the hypothetical, "If and when the Vatican is attacked (referring to the intentions of ISIS), the Pope would only wish and have prayed that Donald Trump would have been elected president."

Stephen Colbert has said he would like to "broker a peace between Trump and the Pope" (whom Colbert calls "Mr. Pope," which he believes is his "formal name"). Wouldn't we want to get tickets to see that?

What did Pope Francis mean in saying that someone who thinks of building walls rather than bridges is not Christian?

It is unlikely that the Pope, head of the Roman Catholic Church, was declaring Donald Trump, who has self-identified as a Presbyterian, not a "real Christian." From what I have seen, heard, and read of Pope Francis, he rises above such a superficial attack. Nonetheless, he is attacking - and defining at the same time - something that lies far deeper than denominational nomenclature.

The synoptic gospels present us with not only the person of Christ but with what characterizes the Christ attitude or the "Christ mind." Throughout his earthly ministry, Christ spoke frequently of the "kingdom," that his mission was to bring that kingdom into being, and to make known to those who heard his voice what the nature of that kingdom is. When describing the kingdom, Christ would often begin with the comparative: "The kingdom is like..."

There is, however, no mention of walls in this kingdom.

Christ's life is a powerful study in dismantling walls, crossing boundaries, and in building bridges. Whereas others rejected lepers, tax collectors, the Samaritan, he reached out in love to these and others who were marginalized, which is why he ran afoul of both Jewish and Roman authorities and was crucified.

This, I believe, is what Pope Francis meant in his reply to the reporter's question. To speak of building walls is patently contrary to the gospel message, and is antithetical to the kind of kingdom Christ had in mind. I would go further in saying it is antithetical to the kind of nation we want to live in.

Not surprisingly, there has been criticism against the Pope for his remarks to the effect that he should keep quiet and stay out of the presidential campaign, that he is out of his element, and in no position to accuse anyone of not being a Christian. In so many words, Pope Francis has observed that a good Catholic meddles in politics. To be in the world but not of the world does not mean you ignore the ways of the world. Even Saint Paul wrote that Christians have the right to "correct" one another. If done in a loving and compassionate manner, there is nothing improper about that. It is a way of keeping one another "awake," that is, attentive, to our attitude and behavior.

Pope Francis and Donald Trump have one other thing in common: Anger. Mr. Trump claims to be angry about America's loss of stature on the world stage; immigrants (mostly Mexican) taking advantage of our too-porous border; the loss of jobs; lackluster American response to the threat of ISIS. Pope Francis' anger centers on the poor and disenfranchised and the struggle of refugees. Both sets of concerns are extremely important and there are no easy solutions for them. How we respond and to what we appeal require careful thought and right leadership.

A call for a theocracy should not be read into the Pope's remarks; rather, they are a call for sanity and compassion, as well as for a call against the kind of fear that wants to build walls instead of the bridges that are so desperately needed. This is not only a Christian call, it is a profoundly human one.

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