Rev. Richard Hong: Pope Francis makes my job as Presbyterian pastor easier

Pope Francis during his visit to the Varginha slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, July 25, 2013.

Pope Francis during his visit to the Varginha slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, July 25, 2013.  (AP2013)

The Pope is coming! In just a couple of weeks, Pope Francis will be visiting the United States, and he will be just a few miles away from my church. As a Protestant clergyperson (Presbyterian Church USA), what does this mean for me and my congregation?

Protestants are not under the Pope’s authority. Yet because we all claim to be Christians, and the Pope is the world’s most visible Christian, everything he says and does will have an impact on all of us. Much of the world, especially non-Christians, sees the Pope as a credible representative of Christianity.

[Pope Francis] is representing Christianity as those who believe in a God whose concern is for all people, not just the rich and powerful. For that I thank him.

- Rev. Richard Hong

Pope Francis has generated an enormous amount of publicity, much of it favorable, some less so – depending on which issue he is addressing and where you are on the political spectrum. It has been fascinating to watch him have such an impact on the dialogue about Christian responsibility to make the world a better place.

In that respect, Pope Francis has done a wonderful service to the Christian faith by highlighting the concerns of ordinary people. His concern for the poor, for the environment, for victims of oppression and injustice – these all help people understand that Christians believe in a God who cares about them. 

When the Pope speaks out against the forces of oppression; when the Pope speaks out in favor of rejecting the world’s value system for one that uplifts even the least among us – this carries tremendous weight, because it cannot be dismissed as a fringe voice, speaking as an outlier within an otherwise conventional institution. Rather, his voice carries the weight of the institution – one that is among the oldest surviving institutions in our world. That gives it credibility.

Every time I see a preacher promising what should never be promised; when I see televangelists angling for larger mansions and new private jets – I cringe because the whole Church is harmed. It’s not my place to judge them. God is their judge. But it is my place to discern that they made the job of every local pastor harder, by presenting a distasteful image to the people we hope to reach.

The message of the early Church did not spread because of the uniqueness of the Christian story. The message spread because of the uniqueness of the behavior of the first Christians. Those early Christians forgave others in a society that condoned revenge. Those early Christians were pacifists in a society built for war. Those early Christians cared for the poor and the sick, when often they were left to die. It was the extraordinary behavior of Christians that caused people to want to know more about the belief system that inspired such behavior.

As a liberal Protestant, I wish that the Pope would show more concern for elevating women to a fully equal role in the Church, for reproductive rights, for marriage equality. But it is not my place to impose my theology on his. It is not our job to find a church that agrees with us, but rather to seek our best possible understanding of God’s will, and then conform ourselves to it. I can both disagree with some of his theological positions and respect his faith tradition.

It has been my experience that we often want to tell each other what we think someone else should believe. Non-Christians often want Christians to believe certain things; Christians are often telling other Christians that their faith is wrong. It is not my place to try and hold Pope Francis to the standards of my beliefs or that of my denomination. We are different denominations because we have core differences about how to understand our Christian faith.

Yet we also have core commonalities. It is the central tenet of our faith that God came to earth as a human being – Jesus Christ – lived as one of us, loved us, and died a very human death at the hands of the people he loved before being raised. Within my theological view, it is inconceivable that a God who would come to earth for the sake of humanity would then be unconcerned about the conditions under which humanity lives. The Pope’s emphasis on making the world fairer, more just, more compassionate – this displays values that will draw people to faith in Jesus Christ.

Pope Francis is making the job of local pastors easier. Protestant or Catholic, it doesn’t matter. He represents the largest group of Christians in the world. He is representing Christianity as those who believe in a God whose concern is for all people, not just the rich and powerful. For that I thank him.

The Reverend Richard Hong is the Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Englewood (NJ), a growing congregation in Northern New Jersey, just outside of New York City.

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