This week, throngs will gather across our nation to witness the words and vision of a man who has revolutionized a church and reinvigorated a 2,000-year-old gospel.
What's revolutionary about this? It's not some radical new idea or ideology. In fact, it's very old. What's revolutionary about Pope Francis is how he lives out his Christian faith through selfless good deeds, prophetic words to world leaders, and compassionate pastoral care. He embodies the mandate often credited to his namesake St. Francis, "Preach the gospel daily, use words if necessary."
So many in our churches are tired of the way things are. They are tired of hypocritical clergy who cast aspersions on the powerless while living a life of luxury. They are tired of churches that are bogged down in internal fights and unable to focus on the needs of their community. As a result, more and more churches are adopting flashy gimmicks and marketing to try to fill the pews. The whole church scene is, well, to be honest, embarrassing.
In the age of banal reality television, social media feuds, and Donald Trump, perhaps Pope Francis' substance and moral depth is the most jarringly refreshing yet simple thing about him. He gives us a compelling alternative vision of what our life together as a vibrantly diverse human community could be.
The Pope shows us that we in our churches don't have to change the Christian message to attract people. We simply have to live it. His message and actions have not only been compelling to people with Catholic backgrounds, but also to Protestants like us and those of other faiths or no faith at all.
This Pope sneaks out of his humble Vatican apartment at night (in which he chose to live over the more lavish papal residence) to visit with the poor. He kisses the faces of those who are disfigured. He washes the feet of Muslims. He has invited each one of us, regardless of our denomination, religion, or socioeconomic background, to consider his inspiring vision of a flourishing community.
In a country where 16 million children go to bed hungry each night and 26 million Americans are paid so little that even full time work would not pull their families out of poverty, Pope Francis calls unjust any economic system that is based on exclusion and inequality.
As changing climates and toxic fumes disproportionately devastate the poor here at home and abroad, contributing to crop failure and global food insecurity, Pope Francis released his landmark encyclical Laudato Si' reminding us that care for our neighbor is inextricably bound with care for creation.
And in a world where people continue to be bought and sold for the pleasure and convenience of others, this Pope has elevated the sin of human trafficking and charged world leaders to address this "crime against humanity."
Nothing of Pope Francis' message is new. It is firmly grounded in the teachings of Jesus and Christian doctrine as applied to the broken world we find ourselves in today. What is new is that we have a messenger so powerfully capable of conveying this message.
Of course, this rosy portrait of the Holy Father's record need not cover over the sins and shortcomings of the institutional Catholic Church, particularly around sex, sexuality, and gender. As female clergy, it is easy to stand in high-church Catholic services and feel that you are the lesser cousin, especially when you have a body that the Catholic church deems incapable of bearing the image of Christ as priests.
It is our prayer that this Pope's inclusive vision eventually impacts the Catholic Church's policies on women's ordination and the full inclusion of the LGBT community.
Some will question the power of one cleric to effect systemic change at any level, let alone in a world dominated by corporate politics. But in a few weeks' time we will watch as Pope Francis addresses Congress and the United Nations, and hold out hope that--like some of the prophets of old--this Pope's enormous platform will transform the hearts and minds of our nation and our world.
Having a global leader that inspires our better angels and calls us to action on behalf of the least and lost has far reaching impacts. Imagine our neighborhoods and communities if all our churches followed Pope Francis' example of service and humility. Imagine our politics if candidates who claimed Biblical inspiration had their economic and ecological policy positions tested against the Pope's admonitions. Most importantly, imagine what it would do for the starving child, out of work father, or homeless teen who encountered a caring heart and a helping hand.
That is why so many of our fellow Protestants are excited for the Pope's visit, and are planning our own events in support. The Riverside Church and Union Theological Seminary here in New York are hosting a series of events to lift up and support the Pope's message, including watch parties, worship services, and panel discussions the weekend of his visit. And in Washington the National Cathedral--associated with the Episcopal, not the Catholic Church--will host events coinciding with the Pope's travels there.
Through humility and grace, Pope Francis has shown our world the radical and inclusive power of the Christian message--love God, love your neighbor, care for the least among us, and do not return evil for evil but love your enemies as yourselves. When we follow Francis' example of preaching the gospel daily while using words only when necessary, hearts will change, systems will change, and the world will change.