Pope Francis is slowly claiming a mantle I never thought I would see a pope acquire: an emerging hero to the American left. In recent weeks I have received inquiry and positive comments on the words and actions of Pope Francis from those in my circles I least expected: devout Agnostics, card-carrying members of the New Age Movement, a published Astrologer, the CEO of a national progressive media organization and an accomplished feminist author and publisher. These are peers, activists who previously could not enunciate the term 'pope' without launching into a tirade against various aspects of the Church and Catholicism. All of them are aware of both my political leanings and my conversion to Catholicism, making me an empathetic reality check for their curiosity and downright awe at the new guy in Vatican City.
For years we on the left have lamented stories datelined from the Vatican. Decade after decade, the official voice of Catholicism delivered conservative right-wing rhetoric with the dependability of the setting sun. When we grew weary of fighting amongst ourselves as to how to execute the fight, we could reliably target the dogma-du-jour coming out of Rome as yet another source of all that constitutes a controlling conservative hypocrisy. The Catholic Church in many ways was a worthy representative of everything we on the Left sought to remove from society: elitism, exclusion, rule by secrecy and the relentless drumbeat of oppressive policy completely disconnected from the daily realities of millions.
Then came Francis.
With Pope Francis' arrival onto the global stage, the left is being forced to do something we don't do very well: shut up and listen. At least when it comes to the Church.
Many of what I characterize as the 'Old Guard Left' here in the U.S. have lived their lives of activism well versed in the revolutions of South and Central America. Most of us know well the role of American and European imperialism in the destabilization of foreign governments in the name of protecting corporate interests going all the way back to the 1800's and the infamous United Fruit Company. What many political activists are less versed on is the role of the Catholic Church in providing a network of stability and hope to the innocent populations in these faraway lands ravaged by the greed of rogue Capitalist interests. In Nicaragua, Guatemala, Argentina, Chile and El Salvador, it was the Catholic community, the missionaries, the priests, the nuns and the lay religious that held the voice of reason in real time, at street level as a constant visceral sanctuary, a beacon that never did allow itself to be snuffed out in spite of the horrors of the assassination of an archbishop, the slaughter of Jesuits and the 'disappearance' of thousands and thousands of loved ones.
While the wars of imperialism, often cloaked in the mantel of 'civil war', waged their bloody agenda in the jungles, fields and cities of South and Central America, a civil war of sorts carried itself out within the Catholic Church between those presumably acting in accordance to directives from faraway Rome, and those working on the front lines of darkness in the name of Christ, doing the work that presented itself before them in addressing the suffering of the poor, the injured and the innocents, answering only to the call of the Holy Spirit in that moment. It is this history, this exposure firsthand with the effects of U.S. and European foreign policy directly on the lives of the poor that Pope Francis emerges from, a first for a pope in modern times.
Just as this environment no doubt informed Pope Francis' spiritual formation over the course of his life, so to it has informed the formation of multitudes of the politically aware on the Left in the U.S. and beyond. Thus far, in the words and actions of Pope Francis, we are seeing many of the values and attitudes which form the core of our activism on the left in the U.S.; words and actions familiar to us who have been made aware, been awakened and in turn profoundly disturbed, provoked and called into action on behalf of the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed.
We are seeing for the first time a leader in the Catholic Church that is publicly congruent in thought and action with the tenants of the Christian world's original Radical, in real time and in real lives. The familiarity of these elements to our own lives as radicals in a world we wish to change is not lost on us.
Keep going Pope Francis, we are listening.