When I was growing up in small town Missouri, being respectable meant a lot. It wasn’t about being rich or powerful, although those things helped, but it was a visible ethic of life. Among other things, it meant you worked hard, kept your word, didn’t hang around bars, didn’t fool around or cheat on your spouses, dressed modestly and appropriately, drove a car that wasn’t obviously falling apart, your children behaved and you showed up in church every Sunday morning (nice clothes, of course). Nothing was really wrong with any of that, and there were a lot of hidden problems within that ethos of the 1950s and 60s, but most families worried regularly about being respectable no matter what their income was. It was all right to be poor, as long as you were respectable.
Lately, I found this story about tweets from atheists expressing their admiration for Pope Francis. Given the rancor of debate around theism/atheism, some of these sentiments are very surprising. One of the main arguments against the existence of God is His followers aren’t who they say they are. Yet we have this humble man, elevated to the head of the Catholic Church, who does things like washing prisoners’ feet no matter who they are, letting small children hang onto him at public functions, kissing lepers in public, and wearing clown noses for photographs. His message of mercy and simplicity are compelling, and many outside the Catholic Church have embraced this example of Christian discipleship.
The only ones publicly reluctant to do this are culture warriors who feel disenfranchised by his embrace of powerlessness. Some say he doesn’t know what he’s doing, or doesn’t understand how some things need to be.
What Pope Francis has shown us so far is Christianity as it should be. He hasn’t backed away from any difficult church teachings as of this date, even though he has essentially declared an end to the culture war. He’s reminded us that what Christians do is far more important than what they say, and the unconditional Love of God for us is the most important thing of all. By getting back to these roots, he’s almost single-handedly made Christianity respectable again. Respectability isn’t everything, and probably shouldn’t be any person or group’s main goal, but it matters. Earning respect is a noble accomplishment, and usually comes without being sought if we’re doing the right thing for the right reason.
Although he’s terribly inspiring, he’s an incredibly tough act to follow. I couldn’t do what he does, even though I try to live a relatively simple life and shy away from the trappings of power. It takes more courage than I have to embrace just anyone. I’m not generous enough, or patient enough at times, and I frequently harbor bad thoughts toward those I disagree with. That’s the issue with all of us who are Christians: we try to imitate Christ’s example and we all fall short. We try not to let this keep us from trying.
Pope Francis has given us an example what of the power an authentically lived can do. For those concerned about how ‘respectable’ Christianity should be, how the Church can rebuild its credibility in the face of scandal and conflict, I think Pope Francis has shown us the only real road to respect (among other things). At one time, it converted an Empire and took over its capital. The challenge for the rest of us is to follow Pope Francis’ example as best we can. The better we can do that, the better chance Christ has to heal the world.