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Rea Nolan Martin Headshot

Pope Francis, You Had Me at Hello, and Lost Me at Sinner

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Other than the significant ongoing issue of women as deacons and priests, Francis is everything I ever wanted in a pope. He is Christ in the temple overthrowing the money changers and upsetting the power cabal of the corporate religion. He is, so far at least, the man of the hour rising to every occasion, pastoral and political, identifying with his flock instead of the elitist hierarchy. In light of all that, I risk sounding small-minded when I ask him to think twice before he identifies himself or really any of us, as sinners first.

Don't get me wrong; I sin. And even before Francis said so, I knew he did too. I suppose admitting it in public is a different thing, especially for a declared holy man who has pledged himself to the highest moral code. For the rest of us, though, sinning is old hat. As a cradle Catholic I was accustomed to piously pounding my chest in mea culpa to the Hail Holy Queen and any number of other prayers that demanded it, including the Kyrie, Eleison during Mass. I have a collection of old, family holy cards that use language like "Lord, forgive this miserable sinner..." which my grandmother had me repeating after her when I was five years old. I continued mindlessly repeating it until I was in my thirties, when I suddenly realized there was something inherently wrong with the interior message I was feeding myself.

We all sin to varying degrees and frequencies, depending on our definitions of sin, which might vary in the context of our indulgent culture. We humans are as imperfect as anything else you're likely to find on this entropic three-dimensional plane. We're a bit lazy or maybe a lot. Even the best of us gravitates toward breakdown, decay, potato chips, hot fudge sundaes, a few glasses of cabernet and the most convenient way of getting anything done, which often involves corner-cutting. And well, sinning.

But with all due respect to the spectacular new pontiff, (and he is spectacular), a sinner is not who I am, or for that matter, who he is. Or anyone. At least not who we really are. Identifying ourselves as sinners is unhealthy, and when you think about it, has gotten us absolutely nowhere in the last few millennia or so, except into a lot of trouble. It's a bar so low we have to stoop to reach it. At best it inspires humility, as with Francis. At worst it inspires devastatingly low self-image, utter lack of self-esteem, and the kind of grossly debauched behavior that meets even the most lax definition of sin.

The great St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) wrote some beautiful verses in her short life. One of my favorites is quoted in the book, A Catholic Book of Hours and other Devotions published by Loyola Press. Referencing the Incarnation of Christ, she wrote,

"Through this union of the divine nature with the human nature, God was made human and humanity was made God."

Not just Christ, she says, but all of humanity was "made God". This includes you, me and Francis. This is the higher bar. This is a bar we have to climb a few ladders, stand on tiptoes, and lean forward to reach. This is a bar worth reaching.

I often think if we filed the emblem 'sinner' into the folder: Older Paradigms of Victim Consciousness, and opened the folder: Children of the Most High -- we might work a little harder at cleaning up our imperfections. After all, by every account we are created in the image and likeness of God. My true identity is a child of divinity, who in partnership with that divinity (as well as with my husband) co-created two magnificent children. I truly hope that those two magnificent young men will humbly reject the destructive identity of sinner on their way to claiming the divine legacy to which they and all of us are truly destined.

So if not sinners, then who are we really? We are noble creatures endowed with a wealth of holy spiritual gifts that we are charged to develop and share generously with each other, the animal kingdom and the earth. If we see ourselves that way, maybe we'll behave that way. Who we tell ourselves we are, matters.