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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