Pope Francis is my rabbi

Pope Francis I
Pope Francis I (courtesy Twitter @Pontifex)

I want to be a Franciscan rabbi

It has been less than a year since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis. Yet, in the span of these several months, the new Pope has demonstrated by word and by deed his determination to transform the Catholic Church. His fundamental conviction that the Church’s overarching purpose is to serve rather than to judge has been nothing short of breathtaking. From the first moments of his papacy he demonstrated that he intends to be a very different kind of Pope, a Pope for all people. Over and over again, he has set the tone for modesty and simplicity, beginning with himself.

Without doubt, Francis is a master of public relations, refusing to reside in the Papal palace, being driven in a simple car, ditching the silly red shoes, and much more. Each of these gestures are so much more than publicity stunts. He is sending an unmistakable message to church leaders everywhere, beginning in the Vatican, with its entrenched bureaucracy, ostentatious displays of the perks of office, and its obvious isolation from the cares of the real world. This is a man on a mission and he is in a hurry, not only because he is not young, but because he recognizes that the Church has lost its way and on the verge of obsolescence if not irrelevance

To be of service to the poor and downcast; to call attention to injustice and exploitation wherever it is to be found, to do all that it can to heal the world; by comforting those most in need of compassion and by disturbing the comfortable: all of these are at the top of Pope Francis’ agenda for a renewed, refocused Catholic church. As we Jews like to say of those we admire: Ad meah v’esrim, May he live to be 120 ! (like Moses)

So, you might ask, why is this rabbi extolling the leader of a religion to which he does not belong? The answer is not complicated. The concerns that Pope Francis is pressing for with boldness and urgency are precisely the concerns that all great religions, Judaism included, should be striving for as well. It is not my place to criticize other faith groups, but I do feel that I have the right, even the obligation, to speak of my own. For far too long, the attention of the Jewish world has been on our own survival, and specifically the security of the State of Israel. This is understandable in the wake of the unspeakable tragedy of the Shoah (Holocaust.)

But survival alone is not sufficient. The real question needs to be: Survival for what? For the Jewish people to survive and to to thrive is something of a miracle, after all that has happened to us. However, to do so while paying scant heed, or worse, mere lip service is a betrayal of the ancient covenant. When the prophet Isaiah called upon our people to be a light unto the nations, he was calling our people to the service of humanity, not just of our fellow Jews. If we say to ourselves: “We have our own problems. Let the others take care of themselves” means turning our backs on the most essential purpose for the survival of our religion. Speaking personally, I find such an attitude deplorable.

The goal of every religion should be the improvement of the human condition. God knows there is so much poverty, so little hope for the overwhelming majority of the world’s population. For religious institutions and their leaders essentially to pad their own nests is nothing less than the abandonment of the mission of every religion.

Pope Francis gets it. He understands the greater purpose of his Church, and as his enacts his pastoral mission on the world’s stage, he inspires not only Catholic; he inspires us all. May God bless the man in the white yarmulke. His Church needs him; the world’s religions collectively need him. He well could become the spiritual leader of us all and I, for one, enthusiastically call him my rabbi.