A basketball player “who shows skin in the game” dives for loose balls, skins knees and gets welts from toppling into front-row seats at courtside.
Pope Francis challenges Christians to follow Jesus by “having skin in the game,” too. He lives simply. His modest wardrobe shuns brocaded vestments and spotless red shoes. Instead of a gilded cross, he wears one made of iron around his neck. The pope has exchanged a sleek Mercedes for a serviceable Ford Focus. This Argentine Jesuit doesn’t reside in luxurious papal apartments. He makes do living in a hostel with other priests.
Change symbolizes Pope Francis’ commitment to “having skin” in the Christian life. He says the Church he leads “is poor and (is) for the poor.”
Early last October, Pope Francis traveled to Assisi, Italy, the birthplace of Saint Francis. During this visit, he challenged Christians to show compassion to those shunted to refugee camps and shanty towns. The pope envisions the “church as a field hospital after battle,” binding up those wounded in life’s grim battles. Churches shouldn’t be run like gated communities that shield parishioners from aiding the lonely, the poor and those spiritually crushed.
In Assisi, the pope declared, “This is a good occasion to invite the church to strip itself of worldliness.” Priests must rid themselves of “vanity, arrogance and pride” and humbly serve the homeless who high-society ignores.
In his recently published document “Evangelii Gaudium,” or “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis describes how the Church “has skin the game” when it’s “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
Some Roman Catholic conservatives are irked because in this challenge to identify with the poor, they don’t hear papal denunciations against homosexuality, contraception and abortion. They question whether doing ministry among the impoverished soft-soaps the church’s traditional moral agenda. Does the pontiff throw holy tradition under the Popemobile?
Pope Francis’ starting point differs from previous popes who saw themselves as defenders of right belief, dogma and moral doctrines that social trends can’t alter. The pope doesn’t waffle on this moral agenda; he chooses not to dwell on it. He cautions faith’s defenders not to become “obsessed” with homosexuality, contraception and abortion at the cost of losing focus for compassionate ministry with the poor.
“To be sure, Francis has not changed anything about Church teaching,” writes Associated Press commentator Nicole Winfield in “The Papal Revolution.” “Nothing he has said or done is contrary to doctrine. Everything he has said and done champions the Christian concepts of loving the sinner but not the sin and having a church that is compassionate, welcoming and merciful.
“But the tone and priorities can themselves constitute change, especially when considering issues that aren’t being emphasized, such as church doctrine on abortion, same-sex marriage and other issues frequently referenced by (Pope) Benedict and Pope John Paul II.”
Pope Francis opts for conversation with differing beliefs rather than doctrinaire condemnation of them. He brings the church “into a new relationship with its critics and dissidents — agreeing to disagree about issues that divide them while cooperating in the urgent mission of spreading mercy — (so that) he might unleash untold good. “‘Argue less, accomplish more’ could be a healing motto for our times.” (Time Magazine, “The People’s Pope,” Dec. 23.)
THINKING ABOUT CHRISTMAS
Episcopalian priest Barbara Brown Taylor, who Baylor University named one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world, points to a curious fact about the first Christmas. Did God convincingly send an angelic birth announcing that that no one could deny Jesus’ true identity?
No, his birth announcement is couched in language wondrous and awe-inspiring — far-removed from formal theological argument. An angel suggested to rustic shepherds, “Be not afraid; for behold I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people.” (Luke 2:10.)
Barbara Brown Taylor in her spiritual memoir comments, “Christian faith seemed to depend on beholding things that were clearly beyond belief, including Jesus’ own teaching that acts of mercy towards perfect strangers were acts of mercy toward him. While I understand both why and how the early church had decided to wrap those mysteries in protective layers of orthodox belief, the beliefs never seized my heart the way the mysteries did.” (Leaving Church.)
After Mary carried her baby full-term and then gave birth, she didn’t exclaim, “I can explain all that happened to me!” Rather, after hearing the shepherds’ reports, she pondered them in her heart.
Taylor’s faith is much like that of Mary and Pope Francis. It’s too deep for mere explanatory words and too suggestive for definitive argument. Beholding belief, rather than explaining it, means “faith is far-more relational than doctrinal. Although I am guilty of reading scripture as selectively as anyone, my reading persuades me,” confides Taylor, “that God is found in right relationships, not in right ideas, and that a great deal of Christian theology began as a stammering response to something that happened in the world.”
Pope Francis acts on the conviction that “good deeds are God’s language; all else are mere words.”
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries. To learn more, visit www.thelivinghistory.com.