I hate the term “the other,” which sounds alienating, but I admit that it serves a purpose, particularly in describing how Pope Francis has changed the world. From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has gone out of his way to reach out to “the other.” He has gone beyond his own tribe. He is a Catholic who is a global citizen, valuing all the citizens of this world – even the ones he would disagree with.
At Easter last year, Francis visited a prison in Italy and washed the feet of two Muslims, an Orthodox Christian, and a Buddhist. His tone toward the LBGTQ community has been one of understanding, not necessarily endorsing its members’ choices but definitely pushing back against the haters.
He’s made it clear this year especially that all of us should be building bridges, not walls — as befits someone who bears the traditional title (and Twitter handle) of “Pontifex”: Latin for “bridge builder.”
It’s a good job description. He wears two hats, really — that of a head of state of the Vatican City and of the spiritual leader of Catholics around the world — and as such he bridges the world and the church.
At February’s Conference on Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi, I watched him, as Vatican head of state, sign documents of cooperation between the Catholic Church and Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and pledges of interfaith cooperation with the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb.
The next day Francis put on his spiritual-leader hat to lead the first papal Mass ever in that part of the world.
This past Saturday (March 16), I saw him put on another hat — one of a fellow human being and lover of God. My wife and I were invited, through Giovanni Traettino, an Italian nondenominational pastor who has long been building bridges with Catholics, to a private meeting at the papal residence in the Vatican.
Nikki and I were waiting nervously in a side room when a man shuffled in, closing the door behind him, and stuck out his hand. It was the pope — no fanfare, no warning, just him.
He was warm, gentle, unassuming and very engaging. We both introduced ourselves. I shared how I was raised in a very conservative Southern Baptist pastor’s home, but had a grandmother who was Catholic and sometimes there would be “discussions.” Francis began to laugh and said, “I’ll bet there were!”
Nikki talked about her work in Vietnam the past 15 years teaching special education to parents and educators, and the pope listened with interest.
He and I then talked about our joint work in building bridges and trying to be peacemakers. As someone who has worked with Muslims trying to build bridges for nearly 20 years, I thanked him for his work; his first response was, “I am heartbroken over what happened in New Zealand.”
We talked further about the work of building bridges, the importance of reaching out and how we might go forward.
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Source: Religion News Service