Apparently Pope Francis is being hailed by some commentators as a new ‘pop icon’! Wow – what a claim - the more you think about it the more amazing, and improbable, this statement seems; the spiritual leader of one of the most conservative institutions in the world, has captured the imagination of modern people in such a way as to have become a new inspirational focus for popular culture. For me this is news indeed!
And what a shift from his predecessor, the man whose own response to modernity was to turn the clock back attempting, among other things, to reintroduce the Latin Mass. In his book "Christianity and the crisis of Culture" Joseph Ratzinger emphasises the need for us to find a place for God in modern culture, which of course is fair enough, but sets this against his belief in the “dictatorship of relativism”. Wikipedia describes relativism as ‘the concept that points of view have no absolute truth or validity’. Now clearly a discussion around this point alone could take up many articles, but suffice it to say that for me, although relativism can indeed be destructive, it is a tool modern society has adopted in order to live in peace with its neighbour and should be dismissed advisedly!!
I too have been fascinated by the stories that have emerged around Pope Francis. His choice to ride on the bus with his fellow colleagues rather than the bullet proof limousine provided for someone of his newly gained religious status; his decision to visit a youth detention centre on Maundy Thursday to wash the inmates feet, feels very different from washing the feet of devoted laity in one of the Roman Basilicas, the practice normally followed by the Pope.
Although I did not need to of course, I very definitely did not warm to Pope Benedict – a figure who wore slightly odd bespoke red slippers and commissioned his own cologne. It always felt that this was a man who was far more at ease with "high culture" and not of the low or "popular culture” that is lived out in one way or another by the majority of his church. And could it be argued therefore that the gulf between modern Christianity and modern people subsequently widened and the irrelevance of God and Christ in the lives of those ordinary people was allowed to widen and entrench itself.
But I have loved hearing the humbling stories of Francis’ desire not to exclude on the basis of religion or social status and his courageous attempt to live a life that is as free as is possible from the benefits and trappings bestowed on one revered by so many people. The fact that these stories have been fundamentally placed within the same world that the rest of us occupy has of course made them all the more powerful, and sound very much like the life of someone far more important than any of us – Pope or not!
All this might seem not significant to those of us of a reformed faith. But what I see in the example of Pope Francis is an ease and confidence in his dealings with modern society, particularly when set against or in context to the traditions of the Christian church - something which I think is often lacking in my own church. In fact the more I think about it the more I believe that this is one of the KEY things that is lacking in the way in which we live out and communicate our faith, our mission, our story, our worship, I could go on. A lot can be learned from the example of humble confidence that sees ministry in the Church of Christ to primarily be one of love and service. My own hope is that much might be achieved by a leader with such impressive qualities.
Rev Suzanne Cooke is the Priest in Charge of the Upper Tas Valley Benefice and the founder of Soul Circus, a regular creative, experimental service supported by the Diocese of Norwich and the Youth Task Force. You can find out more at www.soulcircus.org.uk.
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