I'd like to spend an evening with Pope Benedict, send out for a pizza from a great place near the Vatican, open a bottle of Italian red wine, put our feet up, relax and share, well, an unfogettable conversation.
Could we include Billy Graham? He's also an octogenarian. I assume each of us had some kind of bout with arthritis, a touch of glaucoma, a wave of fatigue and a growing awareness of approaching departure from Earth.
How do I see Pope Benedict and Billy Graham? Frankly, Pope Benedict often appears isolated with increasingly unrealistic, other-century views of human sexuality. Similar to mythical King Canute, who vainly stood at an ocean edge and commanded the waves to cease, he enforces celibacy for priests with apparent disastrous results. One is, of course, the scandal of pedophile priests. Tragically, he demeans the role of women by danying them ordination and denigrating the holy role of nuns.
Through the years I've been fully aware of the major role played by Billy Graham in American religion. On July 16, 1973, I flew to St. Paul, Minn., to attend "Youth Night" at the Billy Graham Upper Midwest Crusade. He appeared to personalize religion, I noticed, and did not mention slums and the absence of equal opportunity in America. In other words, I didn't hear him say that participating in the liberation of people is actual work of salvation. In his sunny litany, bright and crisp, I couldn't find identification with what is called the dark midnight of the soul.
I wondered: Can one speak of personal salvation without a radically sacrificial concern for the needs of others and a consequent transformation of society in the image of God? A bread-and-butter issue for me was I didn't want church and state to draw close together. I wanted to be saved from a superchrist in a superstate. I still do.
The fact that I am a gay Episcopal priest still stands between Graham and me. Graham was interviewed by the Associated Press when he began his first Belgian crusade. A reporter asked if he thought a homosexual could make a good preacher. "I don't know," Graham replied. "I never met one. No one has ever come up to me and said, 'Hello, I'm a homosexual ' I wouldn't know." Maybe I should fax him: "Can we have lunch?"
Despite personal differences, and obviously different points of view on a number of issues, could Pope Benedict and Billy Graham and I sit down for an evening's camaraderie and sharing of views? I've described how they appear to me. How might I appear to them? I've been reported in the media over the years as representative of an "underground church." This refers to an enduring, unofficial spiritual and religious movement that is inlevitably unoffficial and largely undocumented. I've never fit easily into any framework of established religion. I was a Freedom Rider in 1961, highly active in civil rights for decades, and the author of a surprise, slim volume of prayers "Are You Running with Me, Jesus?" that shocked everybody by selling a million copies and altering definitions of spirituality.
I feel a kinship with Pope Benedict and Billy Graham. Clearly there is a quality of sincerity and faith in both. Neither is simply an individual but a global religious figure. Each represents a seemingly endless array of both existential and mystical messages.
I'd still love to send out for that pizza in Rome.