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Is the Pope Good for Christianity?


St. Francis of Assisi was born in the 12th century. As a young man, he felt called by the gospel to give up his possessions, and rebuild a ruined church in the countryside. He founded the Franciscan Order on the principles of poverty and service to the poor. Desiring to live “like the birds of the fields,” he dressed in simple rags, and called the Church to return to simplicity, humility, and love.

Recently the world was introduced to “Pope Francis,” the newly-elected bishop of Rome. In keeping with the spirit of his namesake, Francis rebuked the worldliness of the Church in his first address: “When we journey without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.” He is setting the tone for a deeply humble ministry, austere and evangelical. Before giving a blessing himself, he stunned millions, asking the city of Rome and the world to pray for him first. Though a pope, he refuses to set himself above other Christians; he silently kneeled before the world as millions prayed for him. 

He has since declared it his mission to make the Catholic Church “a poor church for the poor”: humbler, simpler, Galilean. He has insisted on riding in buses and humble sedans since being elected. He has personally paid his own bills. He rejects the more elaborate garments and shoes offered him. He has asked that people give money to aid the the poor and suffering rather than visit Rome. He has called the Church “to profess the one glory: Christ crucified,” for only “in this way, the Church will go forward.” In short, he has acted like a Christian.

Adventists have always admitted that there are true Christians within the Catholic Church. What if the Pope himself was one of them? What would that mean for Adventists?

A Sabbath Sermon

This week, Doug Batchelor, a pastor and media personality, attempted to answer that question, cancelling his scheduled sermon to address Pope Francis’ election. He admitted that the new pope “impresses” him, being “very loving, humble, and charismatic,” and “a man of the people.” He suggested that one cannot judge the heart of a man, and claimed there will probably be “a few bishops of Rome in heaven.” But naturally, his message was centered around another theme: the potential impact of this election in earth’s final days.

And that is where my sadness began to set in.

I have no objection to an Adventist pastor reaffirming the teachings of the Adventist church on “the beast,” and “whore of Babylon.” I expect that. And though I may be a Catholic, I converted from Adventism, and have never lost my appreciation for Pastor Doug. As a teenager, he was my favorite evangelist, full of warmth and humility.

But very quickly, it became clear that his recent sermon was no mere Bible study.

Early on, the sermon had a propensity for misinformation. “John Calvin was once a Catholic priest”;  Pope Francis was “probably” named for “St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuits.” Neither is correct.

But it got worse. Halfway through the sermon, Batchelor raised fears about the Pope’s Jesuit background. He read excerpts from the so-called “Jesuit Oath,” in which, he claimed, Jesuits vow to “exterminate” Protestants. He mercifully omitted the most sensationalist lines of the piece, in which the initiate vows to “hang, burn, waste, boil, flay, strangle and bury alive these infamous heretics,” but no matter. The “Oath” is actually a forgery of the 19th-20th century American nativists; it appears elsewhere as “the Knights of Columbus Oath,” its various attributions betraying its contrived nature. In a 1913 Congressional House report, it is described as a “forged paper” so “revolting” that its damage “to Catholics in general can hardly be measured in terms.” Unfortunately, its circulation continued into the mid-20th century in among anti-Catholic groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

Pastor Doug continued reading passages from the Great Controversy couched in the conspiracist language of the 19th century “Know Nothing Party”: “The Roman Church is far-reaching in her plans and modes of operation. She is employing every device to extend her influence and increase her power in preparation for a fierce and determined conflict to regain control of the world, to re-establish persecution. . . .” (GC 565-66).  In positive terms, Batchelor recalled an instance of anti-Catholic paranoia and mob action in the 19th century—the destruction of a stone for the Washington monument. He decried the fact that Catholics form the majority of the Supreme Court, arguing that America once “picked Protestant judges” because our nation “wanted to protect the Protestant principles of religious freedom and liberty.” (Are Catholics unfit for political office? Should we have religious tests for office in this country?) 

He continued into still stranger ground. He saw the lightning bolt that struck the Vatican the day Pope Benedict resigned as a potential omen of the end. He speculated on future activities of Pope Francis, including speaking before the UN, and receiving President Obama in the Vatican, instructing his congregation to watch these events closely. He pointed out similarities between the Capitol and St. Peter’s Basilica.

Sadly, this was no mere Bible study. It never is.

When Adventists speak of Catholics, it is all too frequently an occasion for misinformation, speculation, and even slander. Sadly, after a few moments dwelling on the possibility of Francis’ authentic Christianity, a very popular Adventist pastor spent the next forty-five minutes showing seeds of mistrust in Christendom.

A Call to Prayer

I grew up with the same misinformation, prejudices and fears. But then, while a freshman at Southern Adventist University, I became fascinated by St. Francis of Assisi. In his poverty, in his innocence, I saw Christ. He seemed to embody my early suspicion that there is nothing wrong in the Catholic Church that cannot yet be corrected by what is right in the Catholic Church. Christ is still at work.

When I see Pope Francis calling Catholics to “embrace the cross,” “serve the poor,” and abandon “worldliness,” I am reminded of St. Francis. And yet, I have Adventist friends whose only response to the pope’s teachings is that “even Satan appears as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14).

Jesus faced similar accusations. He responded simply: “If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?” (Luke 11:17-18). No, I don’t think the enemy inspires the Pope to remind us that “God never tires of forgiving us,” and invite us to “never tire of asking God’s forgiveness.” Adventists should recognize Pope Francis’ words for what they are: profoundly Christian words.

We need grace. We need mercy. And the world certainly needs Christ. The reach of Pope Francis in one week of media attention is greater than the impact of the entire Adventist church all year.

What if, among the millions of true Christians, one could also number Pope Francis?

—Hugo Mendez, an Eastern Catholic, is an alumnus of Southern Adventist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Linguistics at the University of Georgia.

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