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Why Pastors Envy Pope Francis

By Jesse Zink

Last year, not long after the election of Pope Francis, I found myself in a Roman Catholic bookstore that offered free bookmarks featuring a picture of the new pontiff and a prayer for his tenure on St. Peter’s throne.

I have never had more than a passing interest in the papacy. I knew enough about John Paul II and Benedict XVI to admire some of what they did but also to wince in bewilderment and confusion at other of their statements, pronouncements, and actions.

But on this visit last year, as I was turning to leave, I paused at the cash register, picked up a papal bookmark, and dropped it in my bag. There was something about this pope for which casual disinterest was insufficient.

In the months that have followed, it has become clear that I am not alone in this new feeling for the Bishop of Rome. Mainline Protestants of a variety of stripes have all looked to Pope Francis with hope and expectation. Whether washing the feet of a female Muslim prisoner on Good Friday, launching a substantial critique of contemporary capitalism in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, or showing what seems to be a new openness on questions that were thought settled in Vatican teaching, Francis has, it is fair to say, electrified not just people in his own church but Christians and others around the world. A new phrase, “pope envy,” has even been coined to describe the feelings of some non-Catholics. The Protestant reaction to Francis, however, says more about the state of contemporary Protestantism than it does about Francis.

The dominant ethos of Protestant clergy training in the last generation has been one of professionalization. As church membership has declined, we have sought to reverse it by adapting strategies from other parts of society. During my recent training at one of the leading ecumenical divinity schools in the United States, the focus seemed to fall most heavily on leadership, “entrepreneurial” ministry, and management. In a course on pastoral care, I learned about the importance of “self-care” and setting limits in my ministry and in my relations with others. In other courses or seminars, I heard lectures that sought to apply principles from the business world to the life of the Church.

These are not surprising developments. In spite of the financial crash, ours is still a society dominated by business and financial considerations. In emphasizing leadership and management skills in its clergy, the Church is simply mirroring the ethos of our time. When people asked what my degree was for, I could say, “the MDiv is an ordination requirement for Protestant priests and ministers in the same way a doctor needs an MD or a lawyer a JD.” The message to the world is that while we may deal in spiritual matters we are no different than you in our strategies or tactics. Rather than being a body apart from the world, the Church has let itself become yet one more institution enmeshed in it.

Pope Francis rightly explodes this. When I heard reports that the pope is believed to dress as a priest and minister to the homeless on the streets of Rome at night, I confess my first thought was, Doesn’t he know a thing about self-care? The pope has been widely praised for his humility and enthusiastic welcome of all, whether in choosing a Ford Focus over a more expensive car, choosing not to live in the papal apartments, or embracing a severely disfigured man. In these actions, Francis reminds us of something I now realize I did not hear in a single session on leadership in divinity school, namely, that the model of leadership set by Christ — kenosis, humility, service — is different than the model of growth, control, and dominance set by the world.

It is true that we are only seeing a portion of this pope’s ministry and a carefully controlled public portion at that. As pope, he does not have the same worries as a parish priest for keeping the lights on and fixing a leaking roof, situations for which management skills are useful. His celibacy means he can devote himself entirely to his ministry — self-care or no self-care — in a way a married cleric cannot.

Pope Francis stands as a reminder that ministry is first and foremost a vocation, not a profession. Vocations involve our whole being, body and soul. And when calling people — lay or ordained — to ministry, God calls us to respond with passion, determination, and our whole heart. The pope in his ministry has declared, in deed as much as in word, “Here we are. This is what we believe.” Perhaps Protestants are so enamored of the pope because he does and says what we — thoroughly entangled in the modern world — wish we felt more free to do.

The Rev. Jesse Zink is an Episcopal priest and author of Backpacking through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity (Morehouse, 2014).


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