Thursday, September 26, 2013

Is the Pope a Catholic?

If you walked two blocks from where I lived in a four-room house you would come to the bus stop. We had no car. So I guess I rode the bus down Second Avenue three miles to town a zillion times. Halfway there you could see a neon sign: Baptist Tabernacle. Parson Jack was the preacher and was known all over town. He was Chaplain of the KKK and hated Jews, Catholics and of course he said niggers. 

My little Baptist Church was not all that with-it—but we always thought even in the fifties that Parson Jack was a mite too rabid. I never stopped there but I do know the Parson reflected at least part of our Georgia culture too well.

 But in my Church even we were suspicious of all those Catholics. I never met one until I went to High School, but it was whispered that they were not real Americans and that they kept guns in the basement of every church. One day, when no one was looking they would haul out the guns and take over the country. Crazy, yes but it was out there for public consumption. Even though that sounded a bit strange I was told they worshipped idols and Mary of all people and they did whatever the Pope told them to do. We were instructed in Sunday school never to date and certainly not to marry a Catholic. Why? Mixed-marriage.  You had to sign a paper that you would raise your children Catholic and even if the Catholic parent died—the kids still had to be Catholic. We were taught that they really might not be saved, even though the Methodists with their sprinkling and the Presbyterians with their stiffness--were much closer than the Catholics.

My first experience with a real live Catholic was in High School. Shirley was Editor of the school paper. She was wonderful. Kind, funny and smart as could be. She taught me that maybe, just maybe some Catholics might just make it through the Pearly Gates. Even after all these years I still remember Shirley and the gifts she gave me.

In my first church in Western Kentucky the lines were clearly drawn between the Baptists and the Catholics. They co-existed. And all the prejudices about them. The very worst thing any of our young people could do was marry “one of them.”

Up the road about ten miles or so was the tiny community of Knottsville. In the center of the town was a Catholic Church. Many of the folk that lived there were Catholic. I called up the Priest one day and slowly we became friends. He taught me a lot about Catholics. One of the real lessons was they are just like us. Same hopes and dreams—and not a gun in the church.  When we built our new building I asked the Priest to come and give the Invocation. I was unheard of—but I hope it opened some eyes. Later this cigar-smoking Priest invited me to their Church’s Dedication and I had part in the ceremonies. I still remember the Bishop looking just a little uncomfortable. Like Shirley years before—he taught me some of the good things about the Catholic Church.

There are some doors that open that will never close again. I discovered Thomas Merton and read The
Seven Storey Mountain. I heard of the Berrigan brothers and their courageous efforts to stop the cursed wars and bring peace. I read a little, not a lot of Hans Kung and Teihard de Chardin. I discovered funny, brilliant Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic. But that little wisp of a woman in India who spent her life picking up dying babies and loving the unloving--clenched the deal for me.

So this is my roundabout way of saying that we owe the Catholics great debt of gratitude in many ways. I know something of the Inquisition and their tortured history. I have visited Avignon and wondered how in the world the Popes could live there with all their opulence while outside the heavy doors multitudes were starving. I also know something of our own tortured history. We Baptists like all the other Protestants have had—and some still do—some very dark days.

So I was curious when Pope Francis was elected. I never liked Pope Benedict—maybe it was those red Prada shoes. Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of News York came home after the papal conclave. He was quoted as saying not to expect many changes from this new Pope.

Jaws must have dropped Pope Francis’ first Holy Week when he went to a prison of all things and washed the feet of twelve prisoners. Popes usually wash feet—usually another official in the church. This seemed be a Prelude of his tenure as Pope. He caused a ripple across the church for refusing to ride in the Pope Mobile. Like his namesake the other Francis—he lives simply.

He too has opened the door for many American Catholics—who for years have paid little attention to the standard Catholic mandates. Francis has brought new hope to the poor. Lately he has cracked the door even wider with his statements that we must love homosexuals and accept them. He talks about the changes that the church must bring to finances, to women, to birth control and many other important subjects.

This Pope is no flaming liberal. He has strong conservative feelings about many of the church’s practice. He has probably known for years that you don’t turn the Queen Mary around suddenly. It would break into pieces. Neither can institutions change fast.

And yet—I know this: there is a good, good man leading the Catholic Church. I doubt Parson Jack would believe a word he says—I smile when I think of the changes he has brought and will still bring. Yes, the Pope is a Catholic—a very good one.  Would you join me in singing the Doxology?

(You might enjoy reading Jim Wallis' article on "Pope Francis We Need You in Washington.")

   --by Roger Lovette,

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