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‘A Glimpse of the Sacred’

Pope Francis’ visit to the United States last week drew massive crowds and created a huge amount of media interest. To understand more about the impact of that visit, the Furman News and Media Relations office asked Furman religion professor Helen Lee Turner to reflect on the pope’s trip to America and what it accomplished.

Dr. Helen Lee Turner
Dr. Helen Lee Turner

Dr. Turner is the Reuben B. Pitts Professor of Religion and serves as chair of the department. She teaches courses in Judaism, Catholicism and American Religion, and her research interests include The Hopi and their religious world view as well as President Jimmy Carter’s Baptist heritage and its influence on his politics. A graduate of Wake Forest University, she holds M.Div. and D.Min. degrees from Vanderbilt Divinity School and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.

Why is Pope Francis such a popular figure?

Dr. Turner: In addition to holding the most universally recognized and honored office in the world, Pope Francis has many—and very rare—human qualities that are attractive to all of us, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  Warmth radiates from him.  His demeanor allows us to feel, even from a great distance, the genuineness of his love and respect for all people.  As he walks up the steps of the airplane carrying his own small suitcase, we are aware of his humility.  And even after a long, tiring day, he is smiling and obviously deeply content.  He is charismatic in the most profound sense of that word.

Despite non-stop media coverage, audiences could not seem to get enough, and the press remained amazingly respectful.  The spectacle made even adamant Protestants and hardened atheists take notice.  And no matter how we describe it, many of us experience in him a glimpse of the sacred.  He lives out his title, “Holy Father,” and our world longs for such encounters.

The attention Pope Francis received in Washington was especially notable.  The President seldom receives even visiting heads of state at the airport, but the Obama family was there.  The last 11 presidents have met a pope, but before Eisenhower, only Woodrow Wilson had done that.  In fact, in the nineteenth century anti-Catholic sentiment in the U.S. was so strong even greeting a pope would have been virtually unthinkable.  Catholic opposition to Communism in the mid-twentieth century finally eased hostility enough to allow John Kennedy to be elected as our only Catholic President.

How is Pope Francis different from other popes who have come before him? 

Dr. Turner: There are some obvious things that really do matter.  Pope Francis is the first South American pope and he thus represents the changing center of not only Catholicism but also Christianity in general; as Europe and America become more secular, Christianity is thriving in the southern

Pope Francis (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)
Pope Francis (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

hemisphere.  He is also the first Jesuit to hold that office.  The Jesuits are a religious order known for their missionary efforts and scholarly pursuits that have led them to found prestigious universities.  They have often lived on the geographical “frontier” and their thinking has at times put them on the intellectual fringes.  But while Pope Francis’ statements in Washington and elsewhere probably pleased Democrats more than Republicans, he is not likely to be a revolutionary pope in terms of doctrine or the current hot-button issues related to gender and sexuality.

Certainly he is viewed as more welcoming and less rule-oriented than other recent popes, but one should not extend that to modern American definitions of individual fulfillment as the ultimate good.  When asked about their impressions of Pope Francis, one of my students said, “He just wants people to be happy.”  Yes and no.  This pope appreciates good things that come his way—a tasty pizza, a child’s smile, and a good joke—but he clearly distinguishes those things from the most important gift, which is the joy that grows out of experiencing God’s mercy and love.  Joy can be experienced even in the midst of pain and loss; it has far more to do with spiritual depth than fleeting happiness.

Francis has proclaimed this a Jubilee Year of Mercy, a time, when among other things, any priest can offer forgiveness for abortions, and divorced Catholics will find it easier to receive an annulment.  The focus is on healing these and all sins that separate people from the love of God.  Mercy is what really unlocks conversion, says Francis.

Pope Francis has consistently cited the importance of addressing global poverty, confronting climate change, welcoming immigrants and providing a welcoming church.  Is his message likely to influence the future of Christianity in America and around the world?

Dr. Turner: After he had been elected the 266th pope, the first words spoken to Cardinal Bergoglio came from a friend who said, “Remember the poor.”  St. Francis of Assisi, whose name the new pontiff took, transcends the Catholic Church and is loved worldwide as a man who reached out for simplicity in his care for the poor, the infirmed, and all creation.

If we are converted through God’s mercy, we will find joy in showing mercy and love to others.  Joy comes especially through sacrificial compassion for the world’s most vulnerable people.  To his “brothers and sisters” in a homeless shelter, Pope Francis said, “To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete.  It means seeing in you, the homeless, the face of the Lord to be served.”  Care for the environment, too, is not only important because it is necessary for OUR survival but because it is a reflection of God’s glory and because disrespect for the environment affects the poor disproportionately.

As Pope Francis himself has noted, the “tyranny of unfettered capitalism” works against the simple life of love that he advocates.  But it clear that this man with the gentle smile has a quiet but powerful influence.  Perhaps we would be wise to do as he often requested of people he met on his U.S. visit—pray for him.

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