I’m Agnostic, and I’m Hoping Pope Francis Comes to Philadelphia

You don’t have to be Catholic to see the good a papal visit would do.



Let’s get something straight: I know the Pope is Catholic.

This means a few things: I never expect him to adopt the conventional American Liberal positions l hold. There will be no embrace of gay marriage by the church, there will be no permission for abortion, and Pope Francis’s term will not end with the ascension of Pope Mary I. We’re never going to agree on those things. It is what it is.

Still: I find that I’m increasingly a fan of this pope. That’s a bit weird to admit. I grew up among Mennonites who pretty explicitly traced their theological heritage to the Reformation; more recently I’ve simply been agnostic: God’s not really part of my life anymore. Catholicism doesn’t hold much appeal for me, generally. Pope Francis does, however — and so I am rooting for him to visit Philadelphia next year.

Why? His humility. And his attempts to bring the church in line with that quality.

Over the weekend, you may have noticed, Francis broke with papal tradition and went to confession, offering up a litany of his sins for an ordinary priest to hear. It came the same week he forced a German bishop — the “Bishop of Bling” — out of office for overspending on his home. He lives frugally. And on issues the church definitively considers sin, he offers not just judgement — but also love, born of recognition that he is (as Christians tend to say of humankind) a sinner.

His overall public persona, then, seems … Christlike.

That’s probably an odd bit of praise to hear from an agnostic, but I’m not a Richard Dawkins-style militant atheist. Whatever my own problems with belief, I recognize that religion has always been with us and probably always will be. Humans hunger for something bigger and beyond their own existences. Sometimes that seeking leads constructive places. Sometimes it does not.

I suspect there are two types of religious people. Those who use God (and God’s power) as self-justification, as a reason to impose their preferences upon others. Then there are those who, faced with the breadth and depth of creation, are humbled and feel awe. Those who use their spiritual beliefs to create order around them; and those who order their own lives around what they believe is required. There are those whose arrogance is buttressed by a belief they are on God’s side; those whose humility is underlined by hope of the same.

Most of us probably mix those two characteristics to some extent. For many of us outside the church, Pope Benedict seemed to lean a bit toward the former; Pope Francis seems to embody the latter. And if he can infuse that spirit throughout the church — a church that, in its best moments is already a vocal advocate for the poor, sick, and war-burdened — it could be an amazing thing.

And yes, it would probably be very cool to seem him plant some of those seeds in Philadelphia.

One other thing: As noted before, Philadelphia is one of the cities in the church — both in America and worldwide — to be most damaged by revelations of priestly abuse of children. The ramifications echo still. If Pope Francis comes, I believe it will be his duty (and perhaps the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s last, best chance) to give real momentum to the healing.

I’m not a Catholic. I won’t be a convert. But a papal visit to Philadelphia could create profound good beyond all the tourists it brings to town. Let’s hope — and pray, if you’re inclined — for that visit.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

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  • Brudder

    Does he live frugally? How do you know? Did he divest the papal palace and give the money to the poor? If he hasn’t, what is being spent to maintain the palace and how is that frugal? Stop buying the PR and actually look at what he has done. Going to confession is a PR stunt with no substance.

    • Kritts

      And what makes you so sure it is a PR stunt? Although everything does need scrutinizing, let’s give peace a chance and at least acknowledge some of the good this guy has done so far. (And, no, I’m not going to look it up to present to you)

      • Kritts

        oh, wait!! This might interest you:
        After his election, he came down from the platform to greet the cardinal electors, rather than have them come up to his level to offer obedience.
        He appeared on the loggia without the red cape. (The BBC report, unconfirmed, is that he said to his aide, “No thank you, Monsignore. You put it on instead. Carnival time is over.”)
        In his greeting he referred to himself only as “bishop,” not as “pope.”
        He referred to Benedict as “bishop emeritus,” not “pope emeritus.”
        He appeared without the stole, only putting it on to give the blessing. He then took it off in public (!) as if he couldn’t wait to get it off.
        He asked for the people’s blessing before he blessed them.
        He doesn’t wear red shoes.
        Or white stockings.
        Or cuff links.
        He rode the bus back to the residence with the cardinals rather than take the papal limousine.
        When he went to St. Mary Major to pray, he declined the papal Mercedes and took a Volkswagen Passat.
        On his way back from Mary Major, he stopped at his pre-conclave hotel to get his luggage and pay his own bill.
        Though he has taken possession of the apostolic palace, he continued to receive guests at St. Martha’s House rather than the palace.
        He drank Argentinian tea in public when receiving the Argentinian president – protocol is that popes are seen publicly consuming no food or drink except the Eucharist.
        His first Mass with cardinals was celebrated facing the people. (Pope Benedict started this way, but then did a “reform of the reform” and celebrated at the old high altar in the Sistine Chapel facing away from the congregation. Apparently this has been reversed.)
        He doesn’t chant the prayers, he recites them – but this could be because of an impaired lung or his singing ability.
        The wall of candles between celebrant and congregation, another of Pope Benedict’s “reform of the reform,” was moved away and replaced with three candles on each side of the altar.
        At his inauguration Mass, photos show that the candles were originally set up across the front of the altar, but by Mass time they had been moved to the side.
        The crucifix on the altar was a small one at his first Mass.
        He wore his own simple miter from Argentina, not the papal miter.
        He preached from the ambo without the miter – rather like a simple parish priest. (The concelebrating cardinals gradually realized what was going on and had to remove the miters they had started to put on after the Gospel reading.)
        He brushed aside the prepared Latin homily and preached in Italian without text.
        In general, less lace.
        His hands are folded during the liturgy, not the pious (some say prissy) way with palms together.
        He didn’t genuflect at the Supper Narrative of the Eucharistic Prayer – is this really because of bad knees?
        He asked the cardinals not to wear their red cardinals’ robes, but black.
        He stood on the floor of the Clementine Hall to greet the cardinals rather than sit on the throne on the platform.
        He called them “brother cardinals” rather than “Lord cardinals.”
        He bent to kiss the ring of a cardinal who kissed his ring.
        At his meeting with over 5,000 journalists, after Archbishop Celli introduced him, he got up to walk over to him (popes don’t do that) and thanked him.
        He didn’t bless the journalists like popes do, since not all of them are Catholic or believers. Instead he prayed for them in silence, then simply said “God bless you.”
        After the meeting with journalists, he waved away the papal limousine and walked to the Vatican residence.
        When he saw the papal apartments he said, “There’s room for 300 people here. I don’t need all this space.” He has yet to move into the apartments, and some wonder whether he will.
        At Mass Sunday morning at the Vatican parish, he gave the Kiss of Peace to the deacons and Master of Ceremonies, not just the concelebrants. This is breaking the rules – but perhaps also a nice show of support for MC Marini, who must be reeling from all the sudden changes.
        The deacon didn’t kneel before Pope Francis for the blessing before the gospel (as they did for John Paul II and Benedict XVI).
        He doesn’t wear the dalmatic. Pope Benedict revived the practice, not foreseen in the reformed liturgical books, of wearing this deacon’s vestment under his papal vestments.
        He doesn’t distribute Communion as the missal foresees of the celebrant, but is seated while others do so.
        He listened to the words of the Patriarch of Constantinople seated on an armchair rather than the throne that is customarily used in the Clementine Hall. When he thanked Bartholomew I, he called him “my brother Andrew.”
        He has simplified his coat of arms, keeping the miter rather than tiara (as Benedict also did) but removing the pallium from it.
        He is wearing a second-hand pallium.
        He has chosen a simple ring, re-using a ring once made for Paul VI’s secretary.
        Pope Benedict recently began wearing a fanon under the pallium for big feasts, but Francis did not wear it at the inauguration Mass.
        He undid Pope Benedict’s decision that all the cardinals would come up to pay obedience to the Pope at his inauguration, and decided that six representatives would be enough.
        Rather than being seated while the cardinals came up to pay him obedience, he stood and greeted them informally.
        Contrary to protocol, he has given a phone call to the Jesuit superior general, the people holding a prayer vigil outside the Buenos Aires cathedral, and the guy in Argentina who sold him his daily paper (to cancel his delivery).
        When he met the Jesuit general, he apologized for not keeping protocol and insisted on being treated like any other Jesuit with the “tu” informal address, rather than “Your Holiness” or “Holy Father.”
        He is not celebrating Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper in St. Peter’s Basilica (he hasn’t yet taken possession of his cathedral, John Lateran), but in a juvenile prison.
        He celebrated an unannounced Mass at St. Martha’s with hotel workers, Vatican gardeners, and people who clean St. Peter’s square. He showed up before Mass and sat in the back row to pray a bit.
        In his official photograph, he signs his name simply “Franciscus” without “PP” (“pontifex pontificum”) used by previous popes.

        • Brudder

          Thank you for proving my point. There is absolutely no substance in anything you just said. It’s sad that you can’t see that.

          • Andre Oqueli

            These aren’t the only things sir, this is just a small list, Pope Francis has done way more than this, seems like YOU can’t see that.
            With all the things that the Pope no longer uses, or gifts sent to him, he actually melts them down, unthreads them (if they’re papal clothes) and sells away the raw materials to raise money for charity.
            This is in keeping with a practise he did (and probably still does) back in Argentina (and DON’T try to deny it because I have relatives there who can vouch for it) where he employed a metal smith to melt down every single unneeded metal article used in Church activities, such as excess golden chalices, or gold-tipped picture frames and such, as well as the myriad of gifts containing precious metals he regularly received, to sell for fundraising for community projects he did in Buenos Aires, some of which my said relatives took part in. So there this is one example where YOU’RE WRONG! And of course there’s plenty more examples, this is just the one I know best about.

          • Graham

            You are wrong. Papal gifts are stored in the Papal treasury. Those that
            Can no longer be used or bear no practicality are placed in the Vatican Museums where they generate income as a tourist paid experience for pilgrims.

            That is why heads of state who visit the pope give their best; partly because they are inspired that it will be on display in the museums one day bearing their name or country before it.

            Your claim is false and rumor worthless.

          • Andre Oqueli

            Well sir, yes are correct that that is what is usually done with papal gifts, they are, or were stored away in the treasury or Vatican museums, however this pope made changes now so that all gifts containing precious metals, such as gold, or precious stones, such as diamonds or what not, were to melted down or disassembled to be sold. How do I know this? Because a relative of mine knows the metal smith who carried out these instructions while he was bishop of buenos Aires

          • Andre Oqueli

            Furthermore he constantly talks with Pope Francis because the two are still friends, my relatives knows this metal smith because he is responsible for a lot of metal works in Buenos Aires.

          • Graham

            Sorry that is unbelievable. Not even the Archbishop of Manila, who is riches beyond Argentina in Church treasury has that power to do. Yes the Pope donates but he does not touch the papal treasury.

          • Andre Oqueli

            Well just because it’s unbelievable doesn’t mean he doesn’t do it now. If we are to believe that he is changing the rules then what is to stop him doing it? After all he and the other eight chief cardinals with him want to rip up and rewrite the apostolic constitution, so that means it’ll make it easier for him and future popes to tap into the treasury. By the way can I ask you something sir, are you catholic? Or at least do you actually know anyone inside the Vatican? Like I do, who can tell you these things?

          • Andre Oqueli

            Because if you don’t then you better be quiet until you actually get hard evidence to contradict what im talking about: your examples have nothing to do with whether the pope can actually access the treasury, you’re referring to personal items that probably wouldn’t have gone into the treasury in the first place

          • Graham

            Anyone can claim to be Catholic. Anyone can claim to have relatives.

            The Internet is not a 100% verifiable source. You cannot tell me to be quiet because I know more about the Holy See, which is the proper term for the governing body of the Vatican City than you will ever learn through your poor silversmith relatives.

            My education and knowledge in canon law tells me that not all gifts to the Pope go into the Papal treasury.

            You think that just because the Pope has a different style, that means he will see the Apostolic palace and it’s treasure to feed the poor. He will make donations no doubt, but the Papal treasury is there to STAY.

            If you want to prove me wrong, show me a particular item; a papal gift or artwork that is now the possession of the public. Then the internet can believe you.

            Until then, you have no authentic reputation. All rumors and hocus pocus. My brother is la chupacabra and my mother is La llorona.

          • Andre Oqueli

            I thought that you would respond in this way, using preconceived mindsets and such, well I can’t convince you but all I can say is that I’m glad I’m not anywhere near as cynical and pessimistic as you have demonstrated now. Well as the saying goes, time will tell. And even if I had the particular item with which to show you, I don’t know if you would believe me anyways, your answers have not exactly addressed my questions, namely that: what is to stop Pope Francis and an increasingly larger proportion of the bishops and cardinals finally prying open the safe to get the goodies? What, so you think because the old guard didn’t do it before that the new bishops and personnel won’t try? Your reference to canon law may be correct but again who’s to say that they won’t try change it in the future, especially if more Francis-style cardinals and bishops replace the old generation? I can see that no matter what I say and such I can’t change your cynical attitude to the Church, but if and when things do change then remember me and perhaps others will remind you: we told you so! Peace brother

          • Graham

            Gold chalice on sale for ebay for 5 dollars.

            News for you

            Pope just gave the Queen of England a brand new Lapis Lazuli orb for her grandson. Newly made from Colombia.

            Why not give the orbs inside the Papal treasury itself if what you claim is true? Because you are wrong and misinformed by Demonic Satanists who hate the Church.

          • Zenith

            Made from Colombia? Well, of coure, because the Vatican is OUTSOURCING to a country like Colombia where workers are paid nickles and dimes, not like italian workers who are very expensive. Talking about capitalism inside the Catholic Church? JESUS CHRIST YES, CHURCH NO!

          • Zenith

            Of course the Pope cannot donate the papal treasury, they are not his.

          • Graham

            Oh he does not want to believe that.

            He thinks that all the gold ivory and the ecclesial treasures will be given to the poor.

            Poor poor believer.

            How much discount for the artwork of Michaelangelo and Bernini?

            Maybe the bones of Saint Peter will be on sale too. Buy One Get One FREE!

          • Zenith

            Yes, he believes that, because he is a hypocrite, the real treasures of the Vatican (of the Church) are in the Vatican Bank.

          • Lee

            Brudder, you obviously don’t understand governance in a large organization. The pope is, among other things, the CEO. EVERYTHING he does is of substance, and sets the tone from the top down. And as for selling the papal palace, who did you have in mind as a buyer? Another hedge fund fat cat, perhaps, or maybe Lady Gaga.

  • lindy

    Oh my God. I forgot why I left Philly, then I remembered it is filled with idiots of all beliefs and non beliefs. The most sarcastic, obnoxious opinionated asswipes in the world, living in the dumpiest city in the country. I think it is funny as hell that the Mormon Church is coming into your crapped out town and building a huge temple. I hope they block every valuable view in that city. And finally….. I hope they knock on your doors incessantly.

  • mathis logic

    Next time Arne Duncan comes to Philly, he should apologize for all the teachers who have sexually abused children in schools. He’s a facilitator of child rape and should apologize.

  • Zenith

    I have always wondered why the interest of media establishment to portrait Jorge Bergoglio (the catholic pope francis) as some sort of angel and revolutionary. In fact Jorge Bergoglio is everything but an angel and revolutionary. If he were a revolutionary, he would have never been appointed a cardinal or catholic pope. In fact, I could only believe in real reformation in the Catholic Church when the papacy, one of the most corrupt human institutions, divest itself of the Vatican State.