by Rev. Dr. Robert R. LaRochelle
Now that a few weeks have passed since the whirlwind visit of Pope Francis to the United States, I think it would be worthwhile to pause and explore some of its significance. However, I have to begin with a disclaimer. For the first forty five years of my life, I was a Roman Catholic. I was active in the Catholic Church and spent nine years as an ordained clergyman within it. The heart of the struggles that led me to leave Catholicism had to do with the issue of authority in the church. When you talk authority in the Catholic Church, the Pope is a pretty significant figure. If you want to look at this struggle in more detail and examine some of these ‘authority’ matters in more depth, you may want to check out my book entitled Crossing the Street (Energion, 2012). In this book, I look at the issue of authority in the church by including my own personal journey as a way of explaining it.
So, the bottom line regarding the Papal visit for me is that it was most certainly of high interest! It seems to me that this interest was shared by many in this country for a variety of reasons. I am optimistic enough to believe that deep within the human person there lies a longing for that which we would call spiritual, and Francis, because of the way he comports himself, strikes people as one who has some depth and whose priorities are in the right place. I am not the first to say that the timing of his visit in the heart of a nasty political campaign was quite the stark contrast. I want to believe that most Americans know that there is a qualitative problem with our political discourse and that Francis was here to talk about those things in life that REALLY matter.
Upon further reflection, I also considered a few things I think important enough to share with you:
- The Pope is uniquely positioned to make an impact as a well known religious leader. No other religious group has a leader who commands the attention the Pope receives. I say this objectively. I am not contending this is good or bad theology. It simply IS a fact!
- With the long standing dissent and the real pain that has been experienced within the Catholic community, how this particular Pope presents himself represents a certain degree of hopefulness within the Catholic Church, something that has been missing for a while. Even if church doctrines are not going to change, there is a different tone ( dubbed the ‘ Francis effect’) which has already made a difference in local Catholic churches.
The great political leader, former House Speaker Tip O’ Neill, said something once that has become rather famous. O’Neill noted about politics that ‘all politics is local.’ I would contend that, in a very real sense, such is the case with the church: Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox alike. The local parish or congregation is the body which most people associate as ‘church’. A highly charismatic Pope may increase peoples’ interest in things spiritual, but, ultimately, it is in smaller groups, i.e. local churches, where people have concrete opportunities to learn, worship and serve. Sadly, it is the church on the local level, and the leaders of the church, who have let too many people down, people searching for meaning and depth from their religious faith.
No large scale visit will render the necessary effects unless that visit has somehow inspired people to build communities of faith that are inspirational to others. These are communities where worship really strikes an internal chord, where preaching speaks to both our minds and hearts, and where people are clearly DOING FOR OTHERS!
Thus, for me, the bottom line is this: It was a great visit. It really was. Now where does the Christian church, and I don’t just mean Roman Catholic, go from here?
I would invite your comments…