Pope Francis, a Guide Dog, and Faith in America this Easter 2013
A few days into the new papacy of Pope Francis, as the newly elected Pope prepared to greet and address the media, a visually impaired journalist, Alessandro Forlani waited in line with his guide dog, Asia, outside the Vatican. Officials told him that he might not be allowed inside because of his dog and Vatican rules. However, higher powers intervened, and Forlani and Asia were allowed inside and given a seat in the front row. After the Pope delivered his address, he met with select journalists and asked to meet Forlani and Asia. Forlani asked the Pope for a blessing for his family, and then the Pope reached down, stroked Asia and blessed her as well. “He said, ‘and a special blessing for your dog too,’ ” recalled Forlani.
What I found interesting was not the story, but the readers’ comments that followed. From people who pointed out they’re “not religious” to others, Catholic and non-Catholic alike who were “impressed with the new Pope,” “I am loving the new Bishop of Rome,” “for once, we have a truly humble pope,” “Pope Francis is a pope for the masses.” These comments among others struck me for how they connote the perception of the Catholic Church. Some people were truly amazed that the Pope would take such a kind, compassionate action.
After this past week of Supreme Court hearings surrounding the issues of gay marriage and DOMA, along with the surrounding media coverage, I took a step back to reminisce about Catholicism (the religion I was raised) and religion in general, in light of the increasing onslaught of secularization of America.
When the name of Pope Francis was revealed for the first time in Rome, CBS had a commentator in Vatican Square interviewing two women who were talking about when women were going to be allowed to be priests, and upon learning that the Pope is pretty conservative in how he views the Catholic doctrine, began discussing the relevancy of the Catholic Church and when it was going to modernize. Newsflash, ladies! Religion, faith, is not a political movement. Religion is a set of beliefs, rites, and traditions that people hold based upon their particular faith. And those beliefs, rites and traditions stand the test of time which is what faith is. It doesn’t change based upon the current social, political climate. It is the foundation of the values and principles in how we go through life and treat our fellow human beings.
I grew up in the time of Sister Mary Desolata, the epitome of Catholic education, who taught seven subjects by herself, each day, to 54 children in one classroom. And when we graduated, we knew the names of the 50 states and their capitals, spoke in complete sentences, could add/subtract/multiply/divide (there were no calculators.) Along with Sr. Mary and the community of nuns, were the priests, about 5 of them including the Monsignor. We all had our favorites, especially Father Francis because he laughed a lot and knew how to pitch softball. The others, eh, take ’em or leave ’em. It was only 30 years later that we learned one of them was a pedophile, who was rotated from parish to parish.
In a recent Pew Research report, “strong” Catholic identity is at a four decade low, 27%, down 15 points from the mid-80’s. You can count this writer in that figure. Yet in another report, Pew found that one in five people have “no religious affiliation.”
“The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.
In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).”
Yesterday’s Face the Nation topic was “Religion and politics on Easter Sunday.” In the course of the interview, host Bob Schieffer asked representatives of several faiths in America, including Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the reason for so many people not identifying with a faith. Episcopal Diocese of Washington’s Bishop Mariann Budde said, “we’re just running so fast in this society now, a kind of 24/7 life that doesn’t always allow for the kind of reflection and meditation and thoughtfulness that all of our traditions are here to give people in a meaningful way.”
Key word here, “traditions.”
As Bob Schieffer asked Cardinal Dolan, “but how, your eminence, do you remain relevant in a society that is changing so dramatically, where people have such different ideas now about these things?” Dolan responded:
“I think while we can’t tamper with what god has revealed — and you mentioned some of the issues, we can try to do better in the way we present them, with more credibility and in a more compelling way. I think if you watch Pope Francis, he might be giving us a nudge in what we need to do. Part of the problem, Bob, and I’m embarrassed to say that, is that sometimes we pastors, sometimes we church leaders don’t give a good example. And people automatically say well who wants to join if even the bishops, if even cardinals, if even priests and religious leaders aren’t living up to the high noble principles revealed in the Bible and taught us by Jesus. We as Catholics say contemporary men and women prefer a lot more to learn by witness than from words. We’re getting a hint from Pope Francis, because what he’s trying to do I think in a very natural, spontaneous way is to restore the luster to the church, return to those biblical values of utter simplicity, of sincerity, of service, almost a no-frills religion, and that resonates with people.”
The leaders of our religious institutions have yet to compellingly define for their followers and the general population why religious doctrine and traditions are important. In the case of gay marriage, gay rights, we are now faced with the issue of freedom of religion versus civil rights discrimination. Instead of being a nation of tolerance, we are becoming a nation of intolerance, where dissenting views are met with a cacophony of “racist” and “bigot.”
So this is where we are today, Easter 2013, in America. For the faithful, I’m wondering why the silence in face of the secularization onslaught. “Can’t we all just get along” is a chorus that may have worked 10, 15 years ago, but in the face of the few silencing the many, which is exactly what we have today, stronger vocalization is needed at the voting booth, in editorials, and in the public square.
So how long do you think it will be before someone, or group, takes over the media spotlight and sues to remove, “In God We Trust” from our currency. You think it can’t happen? Think again. This is the road we headed on.