I have never liked the Pope. It’s not that I dislike whatever individual happens to be in that position–not that I know him personally anyway–but it’s the position itself that has never sat well with me. People crowd around to have him kiss their babies. Whatever he says is gold to those who revere him. People even address him as “Holy Father.” I thought that title was only reserved for God Himself. I guess I, like many others, are wary of clergy who are put on a pedestal that no mortal man could ever live up to.
Granted, I have strong Catholic roots. Both of my parents came from Catholic families, and they both went through catechism, First Holy Communion, and Confirmation. They can still recite the prayers; my mom still remembers them in Spanish. Until he had an encounter with God that changed him forever, my dad was strongly considering entering the priesthood. One of my grandfather’s brothers was a priest, and until last year a cousin on my mother’s side served as Bishop of the San Gabriel Valley. I myself was baptized as a baby in the Catholic Church, though soon after my parents left the Catholic Church for the Evangelical Christian Church. Growing up, my parents, sister, and I would often attend a Catholic church ceremony with my extended family members. Though I was taught to show respect, I always felt out of place.
Still, I find myself having taken a certain liking to this current Pope, Pope Francis. Apparently, many Catholics and non-Catholics alike have as well. He doesn’t accept being treated as royalty. He insists on taking care of himself. He understands that the Church must change its approach on hot topics in our world today. In sum, he comes across as genuinely humble.
In a recent interview, Pope Francis was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” This is his real name, and he didn’t seem the least bit bothered to be called by it. His answer blew me away. “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” For me, coming from the Evangelical Christian understanding, this is obvious. But understanding how the Pope is lauded by millions across the globe, I could not believe my eyes.
He goes on to say that he feels like Matthew, being called by Jesus to follow as a disciple. The book of Matthew, chapter 9, verse 9 tells of Jesus recruiting Matthew, who was a tax collector, one of the most despised professions of that day. In love with money, and unafraid to be seen as a traitor by his own people, Matthew must have felt reluctant to leave his wealth, and equally unworthy of such an honor.
This is the very character with which Pope Francis compares himself. “Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as [pope]. ‘I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.’” When I see those words, he is not the Pope to me. He is like me. He is me.
I do not agree with much of Catholic theology, just as I am sure he would not agree with me. I still feel uneasy about the praise given to those in his position. But I can say that as a pastor, I wholeheartedly echo his words: I am not worthy, but in His grace God has called me to lead his people as a pastor. And so, not because I am perfect but because God is faithful, I accept. This is the true heart of a disciple.