Pope Francis I is poised to be more than a very popular pontiff graced with humility and an approach of love and gentleness, two words he often uses. He could rise to become a symbol of holiness beyond the Catholic Church, as the Dalai Lama is a symbol of enlightenment beyond Tibetan Buddhism. Pope Francis has designated 2016 a Holy Year of Mercy, beginning on December 8 of last year.
The specifically Catholic aspect of this announcement is that the Church will be "a witness of mercy," but for those of us who aren't Catholic, there's a universal message voiced personally by the Pope: "No one can be excluded from God's mercy." The question, then, is how potent this mission will be. Francis I has already achieved something extraordinary by helping to bring the U.S. and Cuba together in a historic reconciliation. Can being a witness actually extend mercy in a world where, to the distress of all believers, God has been hijacked by fanatical extremists?
Only the Pope knows what actions he will take. Standing outside the Church looking in, millions of non-Catholics feel a fresh wind blowing. Pope Francis has shown that he is aware of world problems, and from the outset he has occupied a unique position. He's become a spiritual exemplar whose personal values remind us of the Jesus we learned about as children. In India I was educated as a boy by Irish Christian Brothers, because my parents believed that their schools were the best.
The Christian Brothers were gentle propagandists. We boys accepted them as friends, but we also knew that our teachers would be delighted if we converted to Catholicism. At home my family was ecumenical, and streams of every faith flowed through our door. I was inspired by Jesus, even as I went through several turbulent phases later in life, from idealist to agnostic, before adopting scientific medicine as my faith, and eventually becoming what I'd call a practicing idealist.
Was Jesus a practicing idealist, too? We'll never know, because the historical Jesus has been lost, and he may have spread the Gospel for as little as eighteen months, probably no longer than three years, before the Crucifixion. but Pope Francis appears very much to be a practicing idealist, and the causes he has thrown his weight behind, such as global warming and the plight of the poor, require every ounce of practicality and idealism both.
But every pope is also the guardian of a second Jesus, the Jesus of theology. to an outsider, it has appeared that modern Catholicism has been mired in a rearguard effort to protect theology at all costs. As beloved as John Paul II was, his views on dogma were totally conservative, and his strong arm of enforcement, the cardinal who became Benedict XVI, was even more strict. Under their guidance, the Church fell behind by decades when it came to modern social trends.
I've used the word "outsider" because we non-Catholics have no stake in how the Church conducts its affairs. But if Francis I is the most conscious of modern popes when it comes to modernizing the Vatican, he might still wind up as a symbol of the theological Jesus. That would be a shame, because the theological Jesus, a creation of Church politics (and revelations) over two millennia, may be unsalvageable. He is mired in dogma, and it is dogma that has driven countless believers to label themselves as "spiritual but not religious."
The Church is perennially worried about its straying flock, and here I will take the risk of advising the Pope about how spiritual he should be. There is a third Jesus who today stands higher in modern reputation than either the historical or the theological Jesus. This is the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, a teacher of higher consciousness. The Sermon on the Mount stands apart from the rest of the New Testament because it concentrates a mystical worldview that cannot be accepted in normal waking consciousness.
Taking Jesus at face value, he offers the following teachings to his listeners:
Don't gather up worldly possessions.
Live for today, not caring about tomorrow.
Don't labor and store away treasure.
Trust that Providence will provide for you as abundantly as it provides for the birds and flowers.
Don't be fooled by riches and power.
The dispossessed will inherit the earth.
Stated this baldy, Jesus's teachings are simply impossible to follow. (The same charge has been leveled against the Golden Rule and "turn the other cheek.") They have zero practical value, and yet we respond to them--at least I did as a boy--exactly because they are so impossible. Jesus was speaking from the level of God consciousness (as we tend to call it today), inviting his listeners to create the world he envisions. Clearly the prerequisite for building this City on the Hill is to rise to higher consciousness ourselves. The third Jesus, in short, was enlightened.
To dogmatists, this statement is heretical. I once opened one of John Paul II's books where he remarked that some Catholics have seen resemblances between Jesus and the Buddha. such views, John Paul asserts, are totally wrong and contrary to Christianity. Why? Because Jesus was the son of God. It makes perfect sense, if you are following the dictates of theology, to separate enlightenment (Buddha) from divinity (Christ). It may be that even the most conscious pope would never blur that line.
But I hope in a corner of my heart that Francis I can open himself to a kind of Super-ecumenical position, not only allowing that other faiths have validity, but seeing that the Eastern tradition of higher consciousness is in fact universal. When he was John Paul's enforcer, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote an edict that forbade devout Catholics form the practice of Eastern meditation, on the grounds that the only way to approach God was through the intercession of Mary. As dogma goes, that's a pretty one, since Mary is one of the most beloved and lovable figures in world religion.
But we must be realistic. Spiritual experiences occur in consciousness, and they are made manifest through the brain. There is no reason to reject meditation as "not Christian" when the point is that meditation, among other contemplative practices, alters brain function. In so doing, specific regions of the brain are trained to register subtle perceptions. The deeper your perceptions, the more subtle the levels of reality you are comfortable with. At the deepest level, we encounter the entire history of spiritual awakening, which is the opening of the self to the self through expanded awareness.
To me, this is the story that needs to be told, however a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim wants to couch it. Does it matter if a celestial light seen emanating from a holy person is Darshan in Sanskrit, Shekinah in Hebrew, and Halo in English? What matters is a realistic validation that the experience of holy light is valid, both spiritually and biologically. There's nothing beautiful about an MRI compared to The Last Supper, but it's too late in the day to base faith on symbols, however beautiful they are. If we are in fact witnessing the career of the most conscious pope in modern times, let him tell us more about consciousness and the spiritual fulfillment it contains.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are Super Genes co-authored with Rudolph Tanzi, PhD and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. www.deepakchopra.com