TIME Magazine Person of the Year

The thinking of many Protestants about the Papacy is complex and conflicted. The very idea of a single head of the One Universal Church of Christ contradicts what many of us believe about leadership in the Church and what we hold as the God-given right of individuals to participate in decision-making and the choice of leaders, in the Church and also in the State. On the several occasions I have visited St. Peter’s in Rome and the Vatican, I found myself not only impressed by the grandeur but also deeply grateful for my modest Presbyterian tradition. And yet, at the same time, I am deeply moved by the Papacy’s reminder of the Church’s catholicity – its universality, and its historic connection to the early church, Jesus’ disciples and Jesus himself. The Papacy represents that for me and I am grateful for it.

As a Presbyterian Protestant there is much about Roman Catholicism with which I disagree beyond its basic hierarchialism and consequent doctrine of papal infallibility. I disagree with the Church’s positions on the role of women in the church, birth control, abortion, divorce, clerical celibacy and gay marriage. But before we Protestants become too critical we need to acknowledge that our own churches have struggled for years and decades, and still struggle, with those same issues. It is also important to acknowledge that many Roman Catholic laypeople claim their own autonomy and right to make their own moral decisions. Everyone knows that the Roman Catholic position on birth control has no impact on the practice of the vast majority of Catholics. When it becomes difficult is when the Church attempts to influence public policy.

Nevertheless I am grateful that TIME Magazine chose Pope Francis as its Person of the Year. He impressed me from the beginning when he refused many of the official accouterments and trappings of his office, paying his own hotel bill, driving a compact car, living modestly instead of enjoying the Papal Palace at the Vatican. And I am grateful for the way he has paid personal attention to the poor, as Jesus did, even critiquing economic systems, such as our own, that seem to perpetuate poverty.

Rush Limbaugh, whose popularity depends on his being outrageous, is sometimes ridiculous, such as when he called the Pope’s critique of “Trickle-Down” economics Marxism. The fact is the Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy have been consistent, uncompromising foes of Marxist political systems. The Papacy, under John Paul, was instrumental in bringing down Soviet Communism and the Soviet Union itself.

Pope Francis has already changed the tenor of the conversation about divisive social/moral issues. He is also in the process of refocusing the Church’s attention on ministries of compassion, mercy, healing and justice-seeking to which Jesus Christ calls all of us. In that, he is my Pope too.

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