Pope’s concern for environment, the poor has Protestants paying attention

Pope Francis has successfully gotten my Protestant attention.

He may not heal the rift our faiths made together during the Protestant Reformation of yore, but it surely looks small from the perspective of today. Christians agree on much more than not, like how Jesus predominantly and preeminently loved the poor and the marginalized. The rest of our differences, like ordination of women or natural law or hierarchical organization or the now understated infallibility doctrine, all pale in comparison to the witness of a man who washes feet and doesn’t waste words.

Francis is giving Jesus a good name. That’s what matters.

In my community, we rarely expect much from the pope. All of a sudden, we repeat just about every word he says and pray for his health and that his enemies not find him. The attention he gets when he speaks about the environment, as one example, is qualitatively different than previous popes received. The ping of authenticity in his presentation join his now famous words about homosexuality -- “Who am I to judge?” -- and cause us to listen to his words as though he meant them. His fundamental and realized preferential option for the poor has validated all else that he says.

In ways reminiscent of the slant about “walking the talk,” we Protestants find ourselves strangely warmed at his multiple speeches on multiple matters. We read them. We repeat them. We notice. We get excited about his upcoming address to Congress or his trip to the U.S in September. 

Explore Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment with this free guide.

I am on my fifth sermon quoting him and observing his direction. Many of my congregants call themselves “recovering Catholics,” and they love hearing about a positive pope from the Protestant pulpit. Or so one person told me in an email after the last time I exclaimed about how the pope was teaching us all -- not just Catholics -- what it means to see how environmental trouble will disproportionately affect the poor.

The larger green movement is paying attention, too. The pope has found a way to become truly ecumenical and to speak to constituencies that are not normally alert to religion.

The larger green movement has always had an air of elitism to it. We think green and think about special foods or farmer’s markets or community gardens. The pope has not disparaged any of this -- and certainly doesn’t call the environmental movement elitist. But he has that air of the all, the inclusive tone of the everyone. He joins Jesus in refusing to have an enemy or an edge. He makes borders and boundaries look small.

Two weeks ago, New York Times columnist Timothy Egan called Francis “the pope who took the name of a nature-loving pauper.” Egan may have nailed it. Francis loves both the environment and the poor simultaneously, and has the power and wit to hold them both together in one thought. The environmental movement has long needed this kind of strategic coherence.

For me personally, I have often despaired at the need we have for leadership that is large enough to encompass and small enough to remain democratic. In the pope, I hope for the right size of leadership: sufficiently authoritative without being authoritarian; sufficiently open to refrain from polarizing.

On all these counts -- the religious, the political and the leadership -- I am paying attention to the pope. If you had told me I’d be so attentive even three years ago, I would have been doubtful, as in full of doubt. Instead, I have become hopeful, as in full of hope.

The difference is personally and politically delightful.

[Donna Schaper is senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City.]

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