(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, December 5, 2015)
KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ I am not Catholic.
And, like you, I have my images of fatherhood.
The better ones have more to do with the holiness of, say, my boy with a ball and a catching glove on our sun-filled front lawn than with the Holy Father coming to visit.
But he, Pope Francis, has captured my imagination (how could he not?) with his recent five days here in East Africa, his first trip to this continent, and his message of grace and miracles.
In truth, I can easily picture Francis as someone else, a common man who, it seems to me, might rather enjoy an evening with his friends, or making love with his wife, or tramping through some woods with his dogs; human and humane, the sort of man to sit and laugh the night away with while listening to his wild stories.
Instead he rides in the back of a small Kia while the world runs alongside in its bizarrely-juxtaposed ways: politicians in their black SUVs, security with their helmets and guns (10,000 police were summoned in Kampala and Nairobi), crowds following in a different way, like sheep, really, in need of a shepherd, (300,000 for one open-air mass in Kampala, then 150,000, for youth, in another.)
Or Francis stands tall and tirelessly in his Popemobile, dispensing hope with every wave and look, there, now in the slums of Nairobi, in Kangemi, a sea of tin-roofed shacks as far as the eye can see, homes without even basic sanitation, its resident children, plainly-clothed in their very best for today, waving back to him, jumping and clapping in ecstatic frenzy.
“I am here because I want you to know that I am not indifferent to your joys and hopes, your troubles and your sorrows,” is what Francis says to the slum’s residents before railing against the forces of “urban exclusion.” His voice might as well be the voice of God and his every breath might as well say, “Come children. Come to my beautiful home.”
Oh, you’re divorced? “Come home.” You’ve had an abortion? “Come home.” You’re gay? “Who am I to judge? Come home.” You’re a starving beggar in the slums of your own private choosing? “Do you think any of this is a surprise to me?”
This, for the children.
Of course, it was after the Enlightenment when the west got so grown-up and sophisticated that it stopped believing in childish things like grace and miracles, ancient miracles like the calming of a stormy sea, or the healing of the blind and leprous, or the raising from the dead (for heaven’s sake, we’re in the 21st century) of some God-Man.
But Francis seems to be saying this is the very point of it, that of course these are stories that only children (and poor children at that) could ever fall for, that we’re all beggars, really, in need of the same bread. And if you can’t make yourself that small and humble (and honest and brave), then you’ll never really understand much.
Not surprisingly, then, for all its apparently worn and archaic concepts of human sin and divine forgiveness, the Catholic church, along with broader Christianity, is on the move. It’s moving especially across the Global South. In 10 years, Asia is expected to have almost as many Christians as Europe, and South America will double North America.
Fast-growing Africa, where clerics now thank “the white fathers” for missionizing their continent, is expected to have 500 million Catholics alone by 2050.
Meanwhile, this pope – he’s Number 266 – continues his spirited ways to show God as a loving father, and mother, appealing to faiths outside of Catholicism, if not to people of no faith at all, with the message that the weak will someday inherit the earth, that the hungry will be filled, that the pure will have vision and the peacemakers lifted up.
So what if such an unlikely scenario might someday, somewhere come to pass? What if this old adult world of supply and demand and survival and acquisition will one day (unless we turn things around) blow up, burn up or just roll up and say “That’s all Folks!”?
And, yes, what if this gives way to something beyond our wildest dreams?