I once was once skeptical about Pope Francis.
When he was elected, my first thought was "Can anything good come out of an Electoral College of Cardinals packed so tightly with clones of the reactionaries, John Paul II and Benedict XVI? Bergoglio must be one of those carbon copies."
But I was wrong.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio turned into Pope Francis. Far from a triplet brother of his immediate predecessors, the new pope has proven to be truly Latin American. That's so even to the point of embodying the ideals of liberation theology, or reflection on the gospel from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed. He has espoused the latter's "preferential option for the poor," its trenchant critique of corporate globalization, and its openness to marginalized people of all kinds. What a surprise!
My second thought was, "But he's already old. His papacy will be short. He won't be able to accomplish much of enduring impact.
Imagine then my further astonishment, when a mere three years into his papacy, Pope Francis' touched in remarkable ways our tiny and remote diocese of Lexington, Kentucky. Even stranger to say, his reach extended to our little Kentucky parish of St. Clare's in Berea. It made me wonder if this is happening all over Francis' world. I hope so.
First of all, consider what's happened in Lexington.
Our previous bishop was a canon lawyer -- an appointee of John Paul II. Bishop Ronald Gainer distinguished himself by urging pro-choice politicians to refrain from receiving Holy Communion. He has since shown other overriding concerns by forbidding Catholic School girls in his new diocese from engaging in sports (such as wrestling, rugby, and football) "that involve substantial and potentially immodest physical contact." You get the idea.
After waiting for more than a year, Bishop Gainer's replacement was at last named. It was John Stowe, a Conventual Franciscan. Father Stowe showed his colors in his introductory press conference. There was not a word about abortion, contraception, or gay marriage, much less about girls' wrestling.
Instead he introduced himself as "a Franciscan educated by the Jesuits and appointed by a Jesuit Pope who has taken the name Francis." "I love Pope Francis," Father Stowe said, "and I will do whatever he asks."
Turns out, the new appointee is not only a disciple of the pope; he is also a sharp critic of reactionary politics -- especially as they affect immigrants. (Fr. Stowe, BTW, speaks fluent Spanish.)
For instance, in 2006, when Fr. Stowe addressed the Mayor's Congress on Immigration Reform in El Paso, Texas, he criticized the U.S. Congress saying, "We shudder to imagine what the inscription on the Statue of Liberty might read if it had been erected by the current U.S. Congress." Promising words indeed.
And that brings me to our parish, the long reach of Pope Francis and its connection with our new bishop.
You see, during this past Lent, for the second year in a row, a small group of us met each week to study the pope's "The Joy of the Gospel" -- the Apostolic Exhortation published in November 2013. In one of our concluding sessions, we were searching for something practical to connect the pope's words with our community of St. Clare's.