Pope Francis’s visit to the USA is fast approaching and, for many of us Americans, it cannot come soon enough. I am not Catholic, but the Catholic Church has encouraged me in what I see as an especially dark time here in the United States.
Religion is dying here. If the current trends continue, we are only a generation away from sharing a designation like that of France or Italy or Germany: just another largely secular, post-Christian nation. My generation, the 30- and 20-somethings, is leading our nation’s secularization.
Increasingly, there is a sense here—just like in Argentina and Europe, I’m sure—that religion ought to be a private matter. Within my short lifetime I have seen the way we speak about religion change. What our political leaders used to call “freedom of religion” is now called “freedom of worship.” The former, language borrowed from our Constitution, entails protection for the practice of religion in both public and private. The latter—freedom of worship—indicates a narrower scope for religion, protecting only practices that occur within religious institutions.
Freedom of religion has been diminished just within the last few years. Religious organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor are increasingly forced to choose between their religious convictions and their desire to help society’s most vulnerable. Religious people who run modest enterprises are being forced to choose to either violate their consciences or endure penalties that will force them into insolvency. If a private citizen chooses principle over practicality, the government can even silence them.
Catholics Stand for Timeless Principles
Indications are that religious persecution here will worsen. At a keynote speech in this year’s Women in the World Summit, a frontrunner for the 2016 presidential campaign pledged to expand access to abortion worldwide, which means “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed.”
It should be no surprise that Hillary Clinton thinks this way when just this year our country’s highest court changed the definition of marriage—an institution that stood unchanged for millennia.
This is precisely why the Catholic Church continues to be a source of encouragement for me. Unlike my own particular brand of mainstream Protestantism, which seems to be following the winds of cultural and political change, the Catholic Church continues to stand firmly for timeless Christian principles.
Of course, when churches like mine begin selecting the biblical principles to which they want to adhere, all sorts of inconvenient longstanding moral codes can be lost. Most Protestant denominations have become comfortable with divorce and concupiscence, many are firmly pro-choice, and some have even begun to endorse the idea that Christ is not the unique means to salvation.
Pope Francis Can Reach Out to People Like Me
I appreciate Francis’s pastoral sensibility and emphasis on compassionate evangelization. He has convinced me that he cares deeply about Christians who have lost their way. Like Francis, I am “a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon,” and my own story of radical conversion teems with the sorts of poor people to whom he’s spent a long career ministering.
I am a very unlikely convert to Christianity: I was a secular Jew who spent many years studying postmodern philosophy at a good urban university. Because of my studies, I formed the idea that the only good was a life devoted to fighting the structural iniquities that had kept so many people from achieving their potential.
So after graduation I joined the Peace Corps and ended up in Paraguay, where I taught beekeeping to subsistence farmers. I arrived in my tiny village in eastern Paraguay with a very limited understanding of the indigenous language, a basic knowledge of modern beekeeping practices, and a deep-seated messiah complex. But the Lord was at work even then. Even at the height of my hubris. I had to be puffed up like that to know the importance of the humility that would follow.
Oh man, was I humbled.
My ivory-tower understanding of the neo-colonial roots of global poverty left me woefully unprepared for the reality of how poor people actually lived in rural Paraguay. Even the training I had received in the Peace Corps was inadequate. It turned out that most folks were not particularly interested in beekeeping. It was 2002, and the wheat and soy boom had arrived. When I came to town, the Brazilians had already been there for years with their big tractors, innovative implements of modern agriculture, and access to capital. The Brazilians leased land to grow soy and wheat, sharing proceeds with the locals. When compared to the huge profits of doing three huge harvests a year, my beekeeping trade seemed like a novel hobby, at best.
Meet Felix, a Poor Paraguay Farmer
I was awfully lonely, and my work seemed laughably inadequate. But I did not despair for long. Eventually I met one desperately poor farmer, Felix, who did want to learn to keep bees. Unlike most folks in my area, he owned no farmland, and to provide for his wife and four kids he worked other people’s farms for a pittance. Beekeeping seemed perfect for him: It would provide his family with some sustenance, maybe even something to sell. Best of all, he didn’t need land to do it.
Felix gave me a renewed sense of purpose. I gave him a new trade. We quickly became best friends. Appropriating bees from the wild is hard work, especially in Paraguay where the bees are all of the aggressive Africanized variety (a.k.a. killer bees). It required accessing the hives, then sifting through tens of thousands of angry stinging insects to find the queen. It was a lot like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.
We would spend long days in the hot sun, canvassing the Paraguayan countryside for bee colonies. During these odysseys Felix and I spent a lot of time talking about life, family, and faith. I quickly learned that Felix’s faith was a very important part of his life and identity.
The way his faith manifested itself was remarkable. Even though Felix was desperately poor, his faith seemed to sustain him. He wasn’t just poor compared to me; no, he was poor even compared to the subsistence farmers who were his neighbors. Yet, remarkably, he was at peace. He truly possessed a peace that surpassed all understanding.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but notice the obvious contrast: Even though I been given every privilege of the Western world, I was never satisfied. In short, I was beginning to see, firsthand, that there are various kinds of poverty: material and spiritual. So I began a journey of discovery. I read the Bible for the first time in my life. I listened to evangelical programs on my little battery-operated shortwave radio. And I continued to spend time with Felix and talk about what I was learning.
Pope Francis, Speak to Our Materialism
When I left Paraguay, I was a Christian. I like to say that my story of conversion is the modern inversion of missionary tradition: young man from rich nation travels to a poor country and is converted by the locals.
Central to the story of my own conversion is a truth that I think has become the most abiding theme of Pope Francis’s pontificate: Materialism is a major impediment to evangelization. This materialism manifests itself both in the philosophical sense—meaning only what we can see is true—and in the cultural sense—meaning we have an unhealthy, sometimes idolatrous relationship with worldly things.
This widespread materialist affliction is a recurring subject of Francis’ pronouncements, writings, and homilies. I don’t know for sure if he came to this understanding of our modern malaise the same way I did—through powerful relationships with those in material poverty—but his enduring affection for the poor and vulnerable and inclination to live simply suggests to me that perhaps he thinks about our postmodern culture in the same way I do.
It is my hope that Francis, as the first-ever pope to address a joint session of Congress, will provide just the sort of forceful rebuke that our wayward culture needs, even though politicians of all stripes will try to claim his statements lend moral credibility to their preferred policies (even when these programs clearly contravene core Christian doctrines about human life).
Government leaders—like those who supervised me when I was in the Peace Corps—will claim that Francis’s emphasis on environmental stewardship affirms the sort of work the Peace Corps does in poor countries like Paraguay. These leaders ignore the important differences between Francis’s ideas about environmental stewardship and their brand of radical environmentalism, which largely guides international development work abroad.
Demonstrating Solidarity with People in Poverty
In every Peace Corps office around the world, there are well-worn sets of books with innocuous titles like Se Puede Planear la Familia. I checked out these books and shared them with Felix, explaining—quite patronizingly—how he could avail himself of various scientifically proven methods of contraception. It was a manifestation of the West’s fatal conceit: I did not see people born into poverty for their potential. All I did was calculate a cost. Development workers abroad would be reluctant to deliver the sorts of education programs that we euphemistically call “family planning” and “women’s health” if we had any sense that human beings—no matter how materially poor—are imbued with the Imago Dei.
It speaks volumes about Francis’s compassion for those who are suffering that his first trip back to South America as pope focused on the poorest countries. Of course this is nothing new: My Paraguayan friends tell me Francis spent a lot of time in Buenos Aires ministering to marginalized Paraguayan immigrants who arrived penniless in the Argentinian capitol looking for a way to make a living.
Similarly, when he comes to the United States, it has been announced that Francis will continue to demonstrate his solidarity with those in poverty by visiting Catholic Charities in Washington DC and a Catholic school in East Harlem. I hope, also, Francis’s focus on those living in material poverty is not at the expense of the many of us who are materially comfortable, but have lost our way spiritually. In my experience, there is a much broader spiritual poverty here than in Latin America.
Reach Out to the Spiritually Poor, Also
As an architect of the New Evangelization in Latin America, Francis has led the way for the church to re-engage those who have closed their hearts and minds to the Gospel. Now that his evangelistic purview is the whole world, I hope Francis’s efforts include reaching out to people like the young man I was when I went to Paraguay, young people who have forsaken the wisdom of ages for the tidy neo-Marxist philosophies we learn in universities.
Comfortable, college-educated people of my age have an almost religious dedication to often sanctimonious (and wholly secular) ideas about our generation’s role in righting the wrongs of the past. Many will simply interpret Francis’s focus on the environment and poverty as an encouragement for the sorts of morally bereft and economically dysfunctional development programs the Peace Corps typifies.
If Francis can imagine a way to affirm my generation’s devotion to the marginalized while delivering a stern warning against the sort of degenerate sentimentality and paternalism that advocating for the poor can engender, then I think Francis could have an astounding impact here. Sure, he’ll probably upset just about everyone here if he does that. But, then again, he isn’t coming to be a comfort. He’s coming to be a witness for Christ.
(In case you were worried about Felix, don’t be. Last time I called down to Paraguay, I heard things were pretty good for him. He now has 11 kids, so I guess my family-planning instruction was less than successful.)