The Pope and the Palestinian Jesus

Pope Francis’ trip to the Holy Land is now history. The general consensus among Vatican observers and political pundits is that nothing of great significance was achieved during the Pope’s three-day visit to the region. There was no breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations. That was to have been expected for, as the Pope made clear beforehand, the purpose for his visit was a purely religious one: He wanted to meet with Bartholomew I, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, in the Holy Land as part of a healing process to bring the 1,000-year-old rift between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches to an end. Pope Francis may have wanted his visit to be a purely religious one but it could hardly remain thus, when Jesus Himself has been turned into a political weapon in the region.

One of the first things Pope Francis would have encountered as he arrived in Bethlehem last Sunday was an art exhibit set up in Manger Square. In preparation for the Pope’s visit, the Palestinian Presidential Committee of Higher Affairs had commissioned an open-air exhibition of paintings of biblical scenes by European Masters. As he entered Manger Square, the Pope would have seen reproductions of some of Europe’s greatest religious artworks–doctored reproductions of some of Europe’s greatest religious artworks! One of the reproductions that no doubt caught the Pope’s attention was that of Raphael’s 1507 Masterpiece, “The Deposition.” In the reproduction, the upper half of the body of Jesus is as it was painted 500 years ago; the bottom half of Jesus’ body is now that of an injured youth wearing blue jeans. Near the body, an Israeli soldier looks on. Other art reproductions have been similarly altered with one purpose in mind: to demonize the Israeli ‘occupier’. The organizers of the art exhibit were totally candid about the reason for the art exhibit: The art for the papal visit was commissioned to “highlight Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation and oppression.” I wonder what Pope Francis’ response was to this unapologetic appropriation of some of Christendom’s finest religious art for political purposes. Did the Pope, or anyone in his entourage, raise objections at the time, or even later?

Deeply troubling though it be, the hijacking of Western Christendom’s religious art shouldn’t come as a surprise since, like the doctored reproductions in Manger Square, Jesus–the Jew from Judea–has himself been radically altered for political purposes. In his 2013 Christmas message, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas engaged in the most outrageous sort of historical revisionism by claiming that Jesus was a Palestinian. Abbas stated that “In Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, Jesus was born–a Palestinian who brought the gospel and became a guide for millions worldwide, just as we, the Palestinians, are fighting for our freedom 2,000 years later. We try to walk in his footsteps to the extent possible.”

Abbas was derided at the time for making such a claim and yet, amazingly, this notion of Jesus as some kind of ‘Palestinian martyr’ has been gaining traction. The biennial Christ at the Checkpoint Conferences hosted by Bethlehem Bible College–a religious institution which describes itself as “evangelical”–have been drawing increasing numbers. The 2014 conference, the largest yet, was attended by 700 Christians from diverse countries. As the very name of the conference implies–Christ at the Checkpoint–participants are encouraged to think of Jesus as a Palestinian harassed–or even worse–by his Israeli oppressors, just as Jesus suffered under Roman oppressors 2,000 years ago.

It may have been his intention to restrict himself solely to religious matters on his visit, but then, Pope Francis suddenly and inexplicably went ‘off script’ in Bethlehem last Sunday. In what was later said to be a totally spontaneous move, the Pope went up to the protective security barrier erected by the Israelis in Bethlehem, touched it, and proceeded to pray. He stood, praying, under graffiti that read, “Pope we need to see someone to speak about justice. Bethlehem look [sic] like Warsaw ghetto. Free Palestine.” Unwittingly and unintentionally (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt), Pope Francis allowed himself to become a political tool in the hands of the Palestinians. What did the Pope pray about at the security barrier? Did he thank God for saving the lives of innocent Israelis from suicide bombers? Did he ask God to bring an end to the situation that made the security barrier necessary in the first place? Did he not realize that some might view his actions at the security barrier that day as a mocking parody of observant Jews praying at the Western Wall?

On June 8, Pope Francis is going to hold a special “prayer session” at the Vatican. He has invited PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to join him, and they have accepted. The Pope has said he doesn’t want to negotiate anything with the Arab and Israeli leaders, just pray together, the three of them. If Pope Francis is the Vicar of Christ–that is, the one who speaks and acts on earth in place of Christ–as Catholics believe he does, it seems to me that the upcoming pray meeting would be an appropriate time for Pope Francis to re-acquaint Abbas with the Jewish Jesus.


Iran’s Rhetoric: A Response

I am convinced now more than ever that people learn nothing from history. Monday night, the Iranian government hosted a lavish dinner buffet in the delegates’ dining room at the UN to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Hundreds of delegates and their guests were in attendance, among them UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Flat screen televisions showed video clips of Iranian rocket launches and bombs as part of the celebration. Three months earlier, Iran’s supreme religious leader referred to another UN member country as an “unclean rabid dog” and its prime minister as “the sinister mouth of the filthy, rabid dog of the region.” Three days before the party at the UN, Iranian state television aired a film depicting a computer-simulated attack on that same country. But none of that seemed to deter people from celebrating alongside the Islamic Republic of Iran on Monday night.

The next day throughout Iran crowds at celebratory rallies shouted, “Death to America.” There were some chants not heard before: “Death to Kerry,” “Death to Sherman.” (Wendy R. Sherman is the lead US negotiator in the nuclear talks.) People carried posters which read, “We are ready for the great battle.” The rally in Iran’s capital Teheran was a rather bizarre affair combining bellicose rants with elements of ‘family fun night’ at the local school. Clowns explained to the children the importance of brushing their teeth. Parachutists dropped candy into the crowds. Actors re-enacted scenes from the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s (Iran’s idea of family-entertainment?).

As is customary with the Islamic Republic on the anniversary of its revolution, Iran showcased its growing military capability. This year’s commemoration included the test-firing of two new domestically-made missiles. An even more spectacular achievement for the Islamic Republic was that, for the first time ever, Iran dispatched a flotilla of warships into the Atlantic. The flotilla included the Khark, a helicopter-carrier warship, and the Sabalan, a destroyer. Countering the US presence in the Persian Gulf by having their own ships ply the waters just off the US marine boundaries has been Iran’s goal since 2011.

A lesser-known event that took place on the 35th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution was a press conference called in Rome by Iran’s ambassador to the Holy See, Mohammad Taher Rabbani. To the journalists gathered there Rabbani expressed a strong desire for the Holy See and Iran to collaborate for the sake of peace. There is a role for religion in international diplomacy, claimed Iran’s ambassador. Since the Holy See and Iran hold common views on a number of issues such as the Syrian crisis, Christianity and Islam should therefore work side by side to address problems, urged Iran’s ambassador. He praised Pope Francis for his “modesty and high morality.” According to Rabbani, “when the circumstances are favourable, we hope to plan a meeting between His Excellency Dr. Hassan Rohani and the Holy Father Pope Francis.” (I wonder how many at the press conference realized that February 11 was also the date of the signing of the Lateran Pacts between Mussolini’s fascist government and the Holy See eighty-five years earlier.)

I believe Pope Francis will engage the Islamic world in a significant way soon. Such engagement could very well include Iran’s president, given Iran’s growing clout in the Middle East. The Pope, one recalls, chose the name ‘Francis’ because of his great admiration for Saint Francis of Assisi. One of the things for which the 13th century saint is remembered is his bold outreach to the Muslim world. In 1219, in the middle of the Fifth Crusade, Francis crossed enemy lines to gain an audience with the Sultan of Egypt, Sultan al-Kamil. Opposed to war, Francis thought that if he could only convert the Sultan to Christianity, then peace would follow. Francis failed to convert the Sultan. In fact, it was Francis who changed. Francis, impressed by the Moslem call to prayer five times a day and Muslim prostration at prayer, called for Christians to follow suit on his return from the Sultan’s camp. Francis brought back only one gift from Egypt: an ivory horn used by the muezzin to call the faithful to prayer, which Francis then used to summon Christians. After spending time with the Sultan, Francis appeared to have lost his former missionary zeal. Rather than trying to convert Muslins, Christians were required now only to live harmoniously with them.

Can the Catholic Pope truly partner with Iran’s president to address the many problems in the Middle East and in the wider world, as the Iranian ambassador to the Holy See suggests? Those who think that Rouhani’s election signifies a gentler, more moderate Iran should think again. The rhetoric that keeps coming from Iran’s leaders reveals their goals remain unchanged. There has been a change in strategy, not substance. Some–like those who attend buffet dinners hosted by the Iranian government on February 11–seem prepared to overlook the vile, dehumanizing language coming from Iran, perhaps regarding it as just an ‘Iran thing’. History should have taught us that dehumanizing language is merely the prelude to something much nastier. It would appear it hasn’t.

Pope Francis: The First and the Last (Maybe)



If one were called upon to describe Pope Francis, the first word likely come to mind would be, well, the word “first.”  There’s so much “first-ness” about this new pope.  He is the first pope to hail from South America, the first pope of the Jesuit order, the first pope to take the name Francis in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi and, apparently, the first pope to have only one lung.  At his first mass as pope, he eschewed the red papal cape for a simple white cassock, his only adornment on that occasion the simple pectoral cross from his days as a bishop in Buenos Aires.  He turned down a residency in the papal palace for a less lavish domicile, the Domus Sanctae Marthae guesthouse.  He carries his own bags and makes calls on his own mobile phone.  There’s a simplicity and humility about the new pope that both Catholics and non-Catholics find endearing.  To quote his admirers, he’s a “breath of fresh air.”      

If you are one of those people who regard the prophecies of a certain 12th century Irish monk as credible, then you likely believe that Pope Francis is also the last pope.  Saint Malachy (1094-1148) was an Irish monk who, while on a visit to Rome in 1139, reportedly had a vision of all the popes who would reign from the time of Celestine II (elected in 1130) until the alleged end of the world.  Malachy describes each of the 112 future popes in short verses which depict some noticeable feature of each of the coming pontiffs.  The Irish monk turned his prophecies over to Pope Innocent IV in 1140.   Despite this effort on Malachy’s part to safeguard his predictions, his verses were lost for 400 years.  Then in 1595, Malachy’s writing was discovered, recorded, and published as a book, Lignum Vitae, by the Benedictine monk and historian Arnold de Wyon.

The last pope to appear in Malachy’s vision was a man he called Petrus Romanus, Peter the Roman, the 266th and final pope, whose pontificate ends with the destruction of Rome.  The verse describing the final pope reads thus:

“In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church there will reign Petrus Romanus who will feed his flock amid many tribulations; after which the seven-hilled city will be destroyed and the dreadful Judge will judge the people.  The End.” 

Although the Vatican gives no credence to Malachy’s cryptic verses, the 12th century “seer” does have his supporters.  However, if there is a connection between the new pope and the Petrus Romanus in Malachy’s verse, it isn’t readily apparent.  True, Pope Francis’ namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, was born in Italy and was named Giovanni di Pietro (Peter) di Bernardone.  And Pope Francis is the son of Italian immigrants from the Asti region of Italy who settled in Argentina.  But that doesn’t make either Francis a Roman.  There simply is no discernible connection between Pope Francis and the pope in Malachy’s final vision.

In the six months since his inauguration, Pope Francis has continued to distinguish himself from his predecessors.  Pope Francis’ namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, believed it was his God-given task to reform the church. Pope Francis seems to be of a similar mind.  Pope Francis wants a poorer, simpler church.  (The Bishop of Limburg, with his lavish new residence, has yet to get the message, it appears.) Faulting the Catholic Church for obsessing with “hot-button” social issues that divide people–like gay marriage, abortion, and contraception–Pope Francis is calling for a more “balanced” church.  He wants a more inclusive church, too. Something no pope has done before, Pope Francis is reaching out to the gay community, a move not without its controversy.  Indeed, some of his remarks have “raised eyebrows.”  He has said, for instance, that, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”  On another occasion, he said that the Church must not “interfere spiritually” in the lives of gays and lesbians. (I wonder what he meant by “interfere spiritually.”  Strange comment from the supreme spiritual leader of the Catholic Church.)  

The Catholic Church, according to Pope Francis, should be a “home for all.” But can the Church be a “home for all” and still be the Church?  The Church came into being at Pentecost as a body of believers, a community of Christ-followers.  The problem with inclusiveness as a goal is that it tempts the Church to “water down” its beliefs and teaching in order to make everyone feel “at home.”

In yet another first for a pope, Pope Francis held the rite of Maundy Thursday foot-washing, not in St. Peter’s where it had been traditionally held, but in a youth prison, the Casal del Marmo.  There, he washed, dried, and then kissed the feet, not of twelve priests but of twelve young offenders, some of whom had no knowledge whatsoever as to what the Pope was doing, or why, until the ceremony was carefully explained to them. Jesus had washed the feet of his twelve apostles to demonstrate servant leadership. Two of the twelve to have their feet washed and kissed by Pope Francis that day were young women; another two were Muslims.

Pope Francis’ namesake Saint Francis of Assisi is famous for his outreach to the Muslim world.  I suspect that is one of the current pope’s goals as well.  There are undoubtedly more “firsts” yet to come. 

Reform of the Vatican: Papal Disengagement Not an Option

In recent–and supposedly private–remarks to a group of priests and nuns from Latin America and the Caribbean, Pope Francis disclosed that a “gay lobby” was indeed at work in the Vatican. Those present at the papal audience on June 6 took notes–notes which somehow became public. As we know all-too-well, very little stays private these days!  Referring to the contents of the secret dossier prepared at the previous Pope’s behest, Pope Francis admitted that “The ‘gay lobby’ is mentioned, and it is true, it is there…We need to see what we can do….”   

A whistle-blowing butler had tried to see what he could do!  Recall the Vatileaks scandal that erupted in January 2012.  Pope Benedict XVI’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, had stolen the pontiff’s personal papers and turned them over to an Italian journalist.  When the theft was discovered, Gabriele was arrested, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Gabriele claimed that he acted “out of love for the Church of Christ and of its leader on Earth.”  Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he wanted to reveal what was going on behind the Vatican walls–and behind the Pope’s back.  After serving only a few months of his sentence, Gabriele was pardoned by Pope Benedict and released from jail. 

In an attempt to get to the bottom of the scandal, Pope Benedict XVI commissioned three trusted cardinals to investigate.  What they found must have been very damaging, for on the day the three cardinals laid the results of their investigation on his desk, the Pope decided to resign, citing his age as the reason.  Perhaps the octogenarian Pope was simply overwhelmed by what he read in the 700-page, 2-volume, red-bound dossier.  I suspect this is the real reason, because of what Pope Benedict subsequently did with the dossier:  He locked it up for the next Pope to deal with.

Pope Benedict’s successor admitted that a “gay lobby” is mentioned in the secret dossier.  What are we to make of the term “gay lobby”?  Does it refer to a cabal of gay priests, or does it refer to a group of clerics lobbying on behalf of gay priests?  According to information leaked to the Italian press by the butler, there was a network of gay priests inside the Vatican that was using blackmail to gain influence and trade in the state secrets of the Holy See.  There were lay people as well who were aware of gay clerics inside the Vatican and who were thus in a position to blackmail them.  At the time of the “leaks” by the Italian press, Vatican spokesman Frederico Lombardi called the reports “unverified, unverifiable, or completely false.”  

The Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexual activity is clear:  homosexual acts are always violations of divine and natural law.  Moreover, all priests at ordination vow to live a celibate life and to conduct their lives in accordance with the Church’s moral teachings.  Any member of the Vatican administrative staff, the Roman Curia, who engages in gay sex puts himself at particular risk of blackmail.  

It appears there is substance to the claims made by the Italian press after all. What is Pope Benedict XVI’s successor going to do about it?  After revealing the existence of a “gay lobby,” Pope Francis reportedly said to the nuns and priests gathered there, “I cannot promote the reform myself–[on] these matters of administration I am very disorganized, I have never been good at this–but the cardinals of the commission will move it forward.”  And indeed, the eight-member commission of cardinals appointed by Pope Francis is slated to meet October 1. The existence of this so-called “gay lobby” inside the Vatican is an administrative problem?  If I had been a Catholic present at the papal audience that day, I would have been disappointed with the Pope’s response.  Since assuming the papacy, Pope Francis has been a strong and very vocal advocate on behalf of the world’s poor.   Why not the same zeal when it comes to promoting reform in the Vatican?  True, as he said, he cannot deal with the corruption himself.  But for the Pope, whom Catholics regard as vicarius Christi, ‘Christ’s official representative on earth’, to remain disengaged because he is “disorganized” is not an option.

The task of reforming the Vatican must begin with the Pope, but it does not end with him or with his commissions.  Reform must start at the seminary level.  According to Michael S. Rose, author of Goodbye, Good Men:  How Liberals Brought Corruption into the Catholic Church (2002),  liberals, intent on changing the Church from within, act as “gatekeepers” in many US seminaries, giving preference to those who share their views on things such as homosexuality, while rejecting those aspiring orthodox clerics who hold to the Church’s teachings.  Whatever reforms the Pope’s eight-man commission proposes, the Pope will have to be involved personally at some point.  For real reform to happen, mandatory celibacy has to be done away with, and married priests allowed into the priesthood.  Reform, ultimately, demands a reforming Pope.        













Pope and Patriarch: All Is Forgiven?

Something quite amazing occurred at the installation of Pope Francis in Rome eight weeks ago.  It had to do with one of the guests. His All-Holiness the Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, was present. This was the first time in history that an Ecumenical Patriarch was in attendance at a papal inaugural mass.  In recognition of the Patriarch’s presence there, the reading of the Gospel at the installation was sung in Greek rather than in Latin. The Ecumenical Patriarch, in turn, gave an address to the new Pope, expressing, for one thing, the hope that the two churches might work collectively on issues of mutual concern, like social justice and poverty.  The unprecedented steps taken towards reconciliation by Pope and Patriarch at the inaugural mass made headlines around the world.   


The Ecumenical Patriarch’s presence at the Pope’s installation has been taken as a sign of just how strongly committed the two leaders are to repairing the longstanding rupture between the two churches.  And history reveals just how longstanding that rupture has been! The drift apart began well before the East-West, or Great Schism, of 1054. One could even say that the breach began to develop as early as AD 285, when the Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) partitioned the Roman Empire into eastern and western halves for administrative purposes. That process accelerated when the Emperor Constantine, in 330, moved the main capital city of the Empire from Rome to ancient Byzantium (which he named ‘Constantinople’ after himself, ‘the city of Constantine’).  The reign of Theodosius I (r. 379-395) was the last time that a Roman emperor controlled both eastern and western halves of the Empire.  After his death, each half had its own emperor. When the Western half of the Roman Empire collapsed in 476, the Roman Empire continued on in its eastern half.  Significantly, citizens in the eastern half continued to refer to their territory as ‘the Roman Empire’.

With the end of political unity in 476 came the end of linguistic and cultural unity as well. Latin became the dominant language of the church in the former Western half of the Empire, and Greek in the East, making communication nigh impossible. The two churches developed different rites and theological understandings as well.  As might be expected, disputes arose, slights were taken. In 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, King of the Franks, as ‘Holy Roman Emperor’.  This was interpreted as a “slap in the face” by the Byzantine Emperor who regarded himself as the rightful Roman Emperor.  Many of the disputes concerned papal authority. The Pope claimed he held authority over the four Eastern patriarchs.  The Eastern patriarchs, in their turn, averred that the primacy of Rome was honorary and that the Pope had authority over Western Christians only. The Patriarch of Constantinople took on the title ‘ecumenical patriarch’ which Rome interpreted as meaning ‘universal’, and therefore unacceptable.  Tensions between the two churches reached the breaking point in 1054, when the Pope inserted the filioque clause into the Nicene Creed, seen by the Eastern branch of the church as a violation of the command of the Council of Ephesus. In what came to be known as ‘The Great Schism’, Pope Leo IX and the Patriarch of Constantinople Michael Cerularius I excommunicated each other. [In 1965, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagorus held simultaneous ceremonies revoking the excommunication decrees.] 

After a millennium of hostility, even longer, it was no small thing for the Ecumenical Patriarch to be present at and participate in the recent papal inaugural mass. The efforts at rapprochement between the two leaders have been welcomed as a positive development by most people. And they are, in many ways. In his address to the Pope at his inauguration, the Ecumenical Patriarch expressed a desire to work with the Pope on world problems like social injustice and poverty. Just think of it: 1.3 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church and 300 million members of the Orthodox Church working together to tackle society’s ills, a truly formidable force for good.

A united front by the Pope and the Patriarch could offer persecuted Christian minorities better protection, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.  The Ecumenical Patriarch knows firsthand what it’s like to be part of a religious minority in a predominantly Muslim country. The Turkish government refuses to recognize the Patriarch as the spiritual head of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians.  In the eyes of the government, he is merely the leader of Turkey’s small Greek minority. The Ecumenical patriarchate, established in the 4th century in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and once with holdings as vast as the Vatican, has been reduced in size to a small enclave. Whenever the Patriarch ventures beyond his walls, he finds out time and again how unwelcome his presence is in the country. A plot was uncovered a few days ago, in fact, to assassinate the Ecumenical Patriarch. The would-be assassins planned to kill him on May 29, the 560th anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottoman Turks. This was the second foiled plot to assassinate him.  It is significant that Pope Tawadros II, spiritual head of yet another Christian minority, Egypt’s Copts, has recently travelled to Rome to meet with the new Pope. 

While the signs of rapprochement are viewed positively by most, I confess that I regard these overtures of reconciliation with some reservation.  Reconciliation, after all, usually involves admission of guilt, repentance, concession, change of attitude, etc., and I have seen nothing to indicate that either side has done that.  Certainly, the Roman Catholic Church still believes itself to be “the True Church.” And supreme authority still resides with the Pope, “Christ’s vicar on earth and Peter’s successor.” Are we witnessing genuine reconciliation or merely the return of “schismatics” to the fold of the True Church?          



Pope Francis: What’s in a Name?

The election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope a little over two weeks ago took almost everybody by surprise, even veteran Vatican watchers.  No one predicted that Benedict XVI’s successor would be Argentinean, that he would be the first Jesuit Pope, or that he would take the name ‘Francis’. There is so much that is new about this new Pope.  As a consequence, Pope Francis’ election has come to be seen by some as signaling a “fresh start” for a Catholic Church discredited by sexual and financial scandals.    

Asked why he chose the name ‘Francis’, something no previous Pope had done, the new Pope responded that it was out of his  admiration for Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226).   The name ‘Francis of Assisi’ is a familiar one to both Catholics and non-Catholics, to any student of history, really.  As a young man, Francis renounced his father’s wealth, choosing instead to live the lifestyle of Jesus and his apostles. He embraced a life of poverty, charity, and humility.  Francis is reported to have once said, “We ought to be servants who are submissive to every human being for God’s sake.” The love of this 13th century monk for the poor, for animals, indeed, for all of nature, is legendary.  Francis of Assisi, lover of nature:  This is the image that comes to mind most frequently–to mine, if not most–upon hearing the name ‘Francis of Assisi’.     

True to his 13th century namesake, Pope Francis has demonstrated humility and simplicity since assuming the papacy.  (In truth, he led a humble and simple life long before in Buenos Aires where he lived in a modest flat and rode the bus to work.) The 21st century Francis has rejected the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace for simpler accommodation in a Vatican guesthouse, the Casa Santa Marta. At his installation, he wore a plain white chasuble, replaced his throne-like seat with a simple white chair, and turned down the papal red shoes for plain black ones.  He refused to wear the ermine-trimmed red cape and papal tiara worn by his predecessors.  Upon taking office, Pope Francis stated unequivocally that he wants “a poor church, for the poor.”

In a further attempt to project a new image of humility onto the papacy, on Maundy Thursday Pope Francis went beyond where any previous Pope has gone. Before Pope Francis, it had been the practice for the Pope to choose twelve priests to represent the twelve apostles at the annual ritual foot-washing ceremony held in St. John Lateran Basilica.  In a radical break with his predecessors, Pope Francis went to the Casa del Marmo juvenile detention center in Rome where he chose twelve prisoners–two of whom were females and one of the two females a Muslim–to have their feet washed and kissed by him. When quizzed by a mystified youth as to why the Pope was doing this, Pope Francis is said to have responded, “to help me be humble, as a bishop should be.”

Vatican watchers and onlookers in general applaud Pope Francis’ return to simplicity and humility.  But Pope Francis’ 13th century namesake isn’t known just for his love of the poor and love of nature.  Less well-known is Francis of Assisi’s evangelistic outreach to the Muslim world. 


In 1219, Francis of Assisi went to Egypt at the time of the Fifth Crusade.  Landing at Damietta at the mouth of the Nile, Francis crossed over to the Saracen enemy camp during a truce in order to meet with the Sultan of Egypt, Sheikh al-Malik al-Kamel.  He spent the next three weeks in the Muslim camp, conversing with the Sultan. No one knows what was discussed.  If he had hoped to convert the Sultan, that never happened.  What did happen was that Francis, while he didn’t convert (at least, not that we know), he changed his mind about Islam.  Francis was deeply impressed by Muslim piety, particularly the five calls to prayer. (Interestingly enough, not long after this, the thrice-daily recitation of the Angelus became a feature of medieval Europe).  Francis ordered his followers not to try and make converts of Muslims.  Instead, the friars were to live peaceably among Muslims. 

Will Pope Francis emulate his namesake in this respect as well?  I think it most likely, given that Pope Francis engaged in interfaith dialogue in Argentina.  I wonder what kind of success this 21st century Francis will have with the Muslim world?  Will he be “won over” like Francis of Assisi or will he confront?  The persecuted Christian minorities in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, are in dire need of a strong advocate.  I hope Pope Francis can be that man.    














New Pope, Renewed Hope–for Change

Like many other non-Catholics around the world, I have been following with interest the events unfolding in Rome these last few days. Given the media’s obsessive-like coverage of the election of Pope Benedict XVI’s successor, it’s hard to imagine how anyone, anywhere, Catholic or non-Catholic, could have remained ignorant of, or even completely indifferent to, what has been taking place in the Eternal City.  On Tuesday, as white smoke issued from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel announcing that the next Pope had been chosen, I stood glued to the front of my TV set–like millions of others, I suspect–watching intently to see who would appear on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.  Would it be another Italian?  An African?   The Canadian cardinal?  I couldn’t even venture a guess. Then the new Pope appeared, and, to the surprise of many, it was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina.    

I would wager that many cardinals were secretly relieved not to be chosen as Benedict’s successor, given what awaits the 266th Pope. The “pomp and circumstance” of the last few days has provided a fascinating and colourful distraction–but a temporary distraction only–from the uncomfortable reality that the Catholic Church is a in a state of crisis: a crisis brought on in large part through the scandalous actions of pedophile priests and their enabling bishops.  And their number appears to be Legion.  No community seems immune, even my own. A few days before the 115 cardinals began their deliberations, the daily newspaper in my hometown reported the upcoming sentencing date of a local parish priest convicted of sexual misconduct with a young person. Similar allegations had been made previously against this same priest in another diocese, but no charges were ever laid, and so the perpetrator was moved to an unsuspecting parish far away.  This scenario, or something similar, keeps happening, challenging the very moral authority that the Roman Catholic Church claims for itself.    

What can the new Pope Francis (as Cardinal Bergoglio is now known) do about the problem of sex abuse?   It is said that Cardinal Bergoglio chose for himself the name “Francis,” inspired by the medieval reformer Francis of Assisi.  If Pope Francis is intent on healing the Church, then, like other reformers before him, he must go back to the beginning. Today’s Catholic Church with its insistence on priestly celibacy bears little resemblance to the 1st century Church.  The apostle Peter, believed by Catholics to be the first Pope, was a married man.  In Matthew’s Gospel, we read how Jesus entered Peter’s home and healed his mother-in-law of a fever (8:14-15).  Bishops and deacons in the early church, moreover, were married men with families.  In his first letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul sets out the requisite qualifications for the aspiring bishop and deacon.  Two of those requirements have to do with wives and children:  A bishop or deacon was to be the husband of one wife, and was to manage his children and household well (1 Ti 3:2, 4, 12).  It is clear that the first church leaders were married men with children.

Over the course of the next four centuries, the Church’s attitude towards married clergymen changed.  Canon 33 of the Council of Elvira held in Spain in 305 provides the first textual evidence of this changed attitude. Canon 33 shows that, while married men were still being accepted as priests, they now had to agree to abstain from all sexual contact with their wives once they received their orders.  The first Pope to issue a decree mandating clerical celibacy was Pope Siricius (384-399).  In his Directa Decretal  issued in 385, he ordered priests to stop cohabiting with their wives, reminding them that a precondition to their ordination was adherence to the lex continentiae, ‘law of abstinence,’ which forbade all conjugal relations with spouses after ordination.  (The fact that he had to issue such a decree shows just how well that idea was going over!!)  I doubt that the apostle Paul, although celibate himself, would have approved of the lex continentiae.  Although he may have wished that everyone was celibate like he was, Paul  regarded his celibate state as a gift, not a rule to be enforced (1 Co7:1-7).  

The insistence on priestly celibacy now in evidence in the Fourth Century was the result of theological error that had crept in, namely, the notion that the sacrament of Holy Communion was a continuation of the Old Testament sacrificial system.  The thinking of the Church  was:  Just as the Levitical priests had to be ritually pure by abstaining from sex while they served in the temple, so too must the priests who ministered the Church’s sacraments be.  However, the writer of the New Testament Book of Hebrews makes clear that there is no such continuity with the former sacrificial system.  Everything that came before, including the Levitical-style priest, has been superseded by the unique priesthood of Jesus.  In Jesus, Christians have gained a unique high priest and a perfect sacrifice.  

Mandatory clerical celibacy–something that came about through theological error–has created grave problems for the Catholic Church. Some priests may see celibacy as a gift, as Paul did, but others must lead desperately lonely and sexually frustrated lives.  And, all too obviously, some priests are pedophiles who have taken shelter within the walls of the Church, unsuspected until they abuse a child.  Because mandatory clerical celibacy does not involve Catholic Church dogma, the new Pope has the power to end mandatory celibacy and allow married men into the priesthood.  This is the reform that is so desperately needed.  People say the new Pope is humble, and kind.  Let’s hope that he is bold as well.