I was raised a Southern Baptist. I'm still Baptist today, but I'm also Roman Catholic, as well as a member of the Unity Church. There are likely other traditions I will join over time because, for all their problems, each has been birthed out of a context of great need. I appreciate and embrace this rich history within all Christian traditions. I embrace other traditions, too, and find no compromise of my own in doing so.
"I love all religions," said Mother Teresa. "I'm in love with my own." That says it for me.
Each Christian tradition has appeared at a critical time in the Church's history when something had gone terribly wrong and needed changing. If history of Christianity has taught us anything, it is that, sooner or later, something inevitably goes awry. When that occurs, however, something emerges that is better, at least temporarily.
On some level, I will always be a Baptist and it is primarily because of their historic stance on the separation of church and state. Unfortunately, this is much less so today, especially among Southern Baptists, the denomination within which I was raised. But this was once their primary contribution to our Democracy.
Not long ago, I associated myself with the Unity Church. I love their openness to all spiritual paths and traditions. They're not threatened by the beliefs you may hold. Nor do they feel it necessary that everybody fit into the same theological box. As a free thinker, how could I not like that? Add to this, their emphasis on consciousness and the interconnectedness of all things and you'll get some idea why I am drawn to them.
As noted in my last post, "6 Things Christians Should Just Stop Saying," the common idea about what Jesus was saying in John 14 -- that if you do not believe in him, you can neither know God nor avoid hell -- is a mistaken interpretation. In other words, you do not have to accept the narrow explanation some give to "I am the way..." (John 14:6). There is an alternative interpretation instead. Embracing it or, for that matter, some other explanation, makes you no less Christian, except perhaps in the eyes of the threatened and narrow-minded. I am a Christian who seeks to embrace spiritual insight wherever I may find it. So, while I am a devoted follower of Jesus, I make it my practice to know other traditions as well -- from Buddhism to Hinduism and Taoism and so forth.
Just as there has always been, there will always be many spiritual paths. If history has not taught us this, then history cannot teach us anything.
I'm also a Roman Catholic. I embraced Catholicism two years ago. I love their varied and rich traditions. Sure there's much about the Church I cannot and will not accept. But I am drawn by the Jesuit, Franciscan and Benedictine traditions with their emphasis on education and the spiritual disciplines of prayer and meditation.
Nevertheless, I am admittedly concerned about the future of Christianity, especially as it is expressed, or repressed, within Catholicism. If the Catholic Church is not fairing well -- and it is not fairing well -- the rest of the Church will suffer, too. And, of course, it is.
The Catholic Church is the mother of all churches.
And Mother is ill.
In fact, were it not for the influx of the Spanish-speaking population groups here in the U.S., the Roman Church in America would be showing similarly steep declines in membership and attendance that Protestant churches have been experiencing for decades. The declines within the Church universal are so steep in fact that many researchers have concluded the Church is on life-support already.
In the larger Christian Church, it is becoming increasingly clear there is much that must change in the Church. If it does not, the Church universal will thrive only in countries where there is widespread poverty and illiteracy. In Europe and in the U.S., the Church will continue its steep decline if it continues to marginalize itself with a Medieval theology, an exclusivist attitude toward other faith traditions, its obsession with the subordination of women, its all-male clergy in many of the Church's traditions, its obvious prejudice toward the LGBT community, and its fundamental rejection of science and anthropology.
This is why many Catholics are hopeful the new pope will initiate needed change in their Church. There are some early signs that his papacy might be different.
It remains to be seen, however, whether Pope Francis will be a proponent of change or an opponent to it.
Below, I've listed "8 Things Catholics (and Many Other Christians) Want the New Pope to Do." It is not an exhaustive list. Not present, for example, is the change many Catholics want to see regarding women priests. Nor is the list below representative of what every Catholic wants to see change in the Church. These are, however, largely shared by many, if not most, Catholics today.
1. Catholics expect what the pope says and what the pope does to be in sync.
Cardinal Begoglio chose Saint Francis as his official name -- Pope Francis. While most Catholics would know little of Begoglio's history, they do know Saint Francis' history. So they are guardedly optimistic the new pope will prefer simplicity over opulence, demonstrate compassion toward the poor, be committed to excellence in education and scholarship -- frankly, I think the jury is still out on this one -- and make prayer and faith his signature aspirations, not only for himself, but for followers in the Church. Catholics want the pope to live the Prayer of St. Francis: "Lord make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love ... where there is doubt, faith ... despair, hope ... darkness, light ... sadness, joy..."
2. Catholics want the pope to take action for the poorest among us.
The growing disparity between the haves and have-nots cannot continue. Catholics anticipate the new pope knows, as they know, humanity will not survive if this trend continues.
Historically, the Church has had an affair with opulence and wealth, and the illusion of power that results from sleeping with both. The Church has made decrees that Church officials have just expected the largely illiterate masses to embrace without question.
Those days are over, however. Whether the priests, bishops, cardinals and this new pope know this, however, remains to be seen. If they do not, I see little chance for Catholicism's survival in America. The Church will be further marginalized instead and, as it is in Europe, it will be relegated to the status of a relic of our past.
Catholics want a pope who actually believes the teachings of Jesus such as, "the last shall be first" (Matthew 26:16); "the poor will inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5); and what you do to the least among you, or fail to do for the least, you do unto Christ -- or, worse, you fail to do unto Christ (Matthew 25:40-45).
3. Catholics want the pope to end the long-standing practice of mandatory celibacy for their clergy.
The practice of celibacy may be preferable but it should no longer be mandatory. Catholics believe this is an outdated practice, patently unnecessary, especially at a time when there is a widespread shortage of priests.
4. Catholics want the pope to end the Church's official opposition to birth control.
In the United States, nearly nine out of 10 Catholics no longer believe using birth control is a moral issue. So, end it. There are far more important matters that should occupy the Church's agenda, especially in countries like Africa where AIDS is still a widespread challenge.
5. Catholics want the pope to hold high the sanctity of life but stop trying to legislate a woman's right to abortion.
Admittedly, the Church remains conflicted and divided on this matter. But, when push comes to shove, Catholics, just as do almost all other Christians, prefer to leave the matter of abortion with the woman.
6. Catholics want the pope to change the Church's official position of opposition to homosexuality, gay and lesbian couples, and same-sex marriage.
On these issues, Catholics are increasingly become aware that if the Church does not change its views about such matters, it will one day have to apologize to these they've abused by their prejudices, just as Church leaders had to do in the case of Copernicus and Galileo. Finally.
7. Catholics want ... no, you might say, they demand the new pope come clean on clergy abuse.
They are sick to their souls over this scourge within the Church. They want the Church to own its mistakes, admit culpability, even by Rome itself, and set the record straight once-and-for-all. Catholics are fed up with the hypocrisy and the loss of credibility the Church has suffered. How could Church leaders possibly think Catholics will tolerate policies or practices that seek to drive homosexuals back into the proverbial "closet" while, as someone put it, "continuing the long-standing practice of hiding clergy pedophiles in closets of their own?"
8. Finally, Catholics want the new pope to seek Church renewal around Jesus' primary mission: Evangelization.
The proclamation of the Good News is not defined by narrow-exclusivism, as it has been by some Christian groups. It is instead Good News and defined by Jesus defined it in Luke 4:18-19, as hope for "the poor ... freedom for the captives ... sight to the blind ... and liberty for those who are oppressed."
That's a far different Gospel than that proclaimed by many churches. Theirs is a watered-down version that seeks only to get everyone to say, "I believe in Jesus" and that for the sole purpose of avoiding hell and going to heaven when one dies.
What Catholics want, and many other Christians, is a leader who genuinely lives the Good News for the sake of the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed. They want the new pope to help the Church move beyond a reductionistic approach to the Good News, making it little more than an insurance policy to protect one from hell.
Catholics want the new pope to call the Church to model simplicity, seek a prayerful life full of devotion and compassion so that, in the end, the prayers and practice of the Church become one -- and once again exemplary -- that God's will might truly be done "on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10).
That, Pope Francis, would be in the spirit of him whose name you've chosen to bear.
Dr. Steve McSwain is an author, speaker, thought leader and spiritual teacher. His books and blogs inspire spiritual seekers around the world. He is a devoted follower of Christ but an interfaith activist as well. He is frequently heard to say, in the words of Mother Teresa, "I love all religions; but I'm IN LOVE with my own." Read more from Dr. McSwain on his blog SteveMcSwain.com/blog/