I spoke about Pope Francis on Yom Kippur morning at Temple Israel. His style of leadership was the unifying scaffolding upon which I built my sermon for this most holy of holy days in the Jewish calendar. I was able to tie in Jonah (the book not Hill) and the theme of reflection and self-assessment that is at the heart of this Day of Atonement. The Pope’s visit and his popularity became the refrain for me to ask one of the Day’s fundamental questions: when all is said and all is done how we would like to be remembered.
Now the Pope’s visit is history. He is back in Rome and CNN can return to its regular programming. I am not an expert in Catholic doctrine or ritual but this is what I learned from him as a Rabbi and as a plain old ordinary Jew and a plain old ordinary human being.
I learned that there are no plain old ordinary human beings. Whether it was planned or orchestrated or not, it doesn’t matter. Every time he stopped his motorcade and picked up a baby or walked over to a young boy with disabilities or met with people incarcerated for terrible crimes, he underscored a fundamental religious value that at the core we are souls precious and unique, created in the image of God. And don’t let God language get in your way of understanding that. It is a message that celebrates our humanity and our shared responsibility to one another. It is the sacred voice of collective wisdom speaking: we are kin and we share one small planet in a seemingly cold, vast, infinite universe. Let’s take care of it and each other.
This is what I learned as a Jew. This is not my grandparents’ Catholic Church. It is still a huge and wealthy institution that loves its ritual, its incense, its symbolic gestures and its mystery. But at least under Francis’ leadership, there are conscious cracks and openings for the message that a Jewish Jesus taught as an itinerant Rabbi/Sage/Prophet/Story teller and parable maker in and around Galilee and Jerusalem. And this is what I admired. The message of forgiveness, love and acceptance is real and it is to be acted upon and lived when you sit in your house, when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when your rise up.
This is the challenge to me as a Rabbi (and you can substitute minister or priest and lots of other professions, not just religious). You cannot let the institution or other people’s expectations define you. The weight of all our traditions can force you into a mold that is at the same time comfortable and confining. Maybe I am reading into it, but I think you could see how heavy the past was in just the way Pope Francis walked: slowly, deliberately and balancing the miter on his head. And yet, he always walked forward, deliberately so. And he always seemed to let his inner light shine through. And he always seemed to be his own person – what a gift to us all.