Hope Returns

A few years ago, it seemed like the Catholic Church was a mess. They were facing so much anger and criticism around a sexual scandal with priests and parishioners and even children. No matter how they tried to respond, it seemed to be too little, too late. They never could seem to find the right words, the right actions, or the right tone to re-assure people that they were taking corrective action and addressing the root problems. It was a mess they could never seem to get out from under. In addition to this, the church was facing questions of financial mismanagement and they even went so far as to fire the Pope’s butler.

However, last week, Pope Francis made his first trip to Cuba and the United States. For a few days, he seemed to be the most popular politician in our country. People love him. Both political parties wanted to claim him as their own. Each party focused on their policies that Pope Francis supported, but said nothing about their policies that he did not support. It seemed as if everyone wanted to see and be seen with Pope Francis.

This Pope seems to have changed people’s minds about the Catholic Church. Attitudes have shifted from being very negative to being very positive. People are much more upbeat and hopeful now about the future of the church. Why is that? What happened? What has changed?

In the early days of his tenure, many in the secular media misunderstood the Pope. They thought he was changing Catholic doctrine, when he really wasn’t. What he changed was the tone in which the teaching came through. They thought he was changing the church’s teaching on abortion, marriage, and homosexuality. He actually didn’t. What he did change was the tone, the focus, and the emphasis. He has left Catholic doctrine alone, but has said – let’s not fight the old cultural wars anymore. Let’s focus on loving our neighbor, feeding the hungry, and caring for the poor. Let’s focus more on ministering to regular people and hurting people, rather than on preserving the institution.

Pope Francis rejected the luxuries of the position, carried his own suitcase, checked out of his own hotel room, and paid his own bill. He washed the feet of women, kissed the disfigured, and put people before rules. Instead of trying to correct all the bad things that people do, he focused on loving them back to God. It has worked. He is changing the culture of the Catholic Church. He has provided hope to people who were feeling hopeless about their church. People see him as a genuine and authentic Christian, and they are flocking to that. He has focused on both evangelism and social action. He wants people to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior and he wants to meet their everyday needs. He has not been afraid to leave his privileged surroundings and go to where the ordinary people live, work, and play, finding common ground on their turf.

What we can we learn from watching this? I think there are a couple of things:
1. While many today have developed a negative view of the church, their perceptions can be changed when they see people who actually “walk the talk”. When they sense of spirit of humility and love and genuine care, they respond in positive ways.
2. There is still a deep spiritual hunger in our culture today. For whatever reason, some people have not found churches that are addressing their questions and concerns. But, when they see people with integrity and compassion, they are drawn to them.
3. We serve one surprising God. We serve a God who can bring about change in the church, in our community, and in our individual lives. Jesus brings hope to the hopeless. The Holy Spirit breaks down barriers between people. God keeps showing up in the most God-forsaken places.
4. The image of the church in our community can change, and we don’t have to throw out Biblical teachings for that to happen. Often, people listen more to how we say things than what we actually say. Both are important, but we don’t have to throw out our content to get people to respond positively.
5. I believe God wants the church to have a positive ministry in the community. This does not mean that we don’t ever talk about controversial issues, or that we have to pretend to agree when we don’t. We can be people who have compassionate convictions. We can be people of genuine grace.
6. As the church, we can’t wait for people to come to us. We have to go to them. We have to leave our homes and church buildings and meet people in their homes, their neighborhoods, our schools, and our places of work. If we are excited about our church, and if we invite them to come with us and share in our excitement, we may generate some interest and they just might come. But, that usually only happens after we have gone to them, taken the time to listen to them, heard their stories, and understood where they are coming from.

The story of Pope Francis and the Catholic Church shows us that the image of a church can change. The image of a church can get better. People can get excited about being a part of a church again. Our God can create something out of nothing. Jesus can create hope where there is no hope. The Holy Spirit can create something encouraging out of something that had been discouraging.

Christianity was founded on the story of the resurrection – what was dead has now come back to life. The God of the resurrection is constantly breathing new life back into the church. While we don’t want to minimize the challenges facing the church today, this is an exciting time to be a part of the church. We serve one surprising God. You just never know what God might do next. .

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