I Heart Francis: Letters to the Pope from an Unlikely Admirer
by Donna Schaper
Fortress Press, December 2016, 180 pp.
This excerpt is from the first chapter of I Heart Francis: Letters to the Pope from an Unlikely Admirer. It was edited for length and was reprinted with permission from Fortress Press. Please visit their website to purchase a copy of this book.
I shouldn’t be having an affair with anybody, much less a pope. But if anybody can attract the attention of a sixty-nine-year-old happily married clergywoman, it’s you. I’ve been looking for a spiritual leader like you my whole life, and looking in all the wrong places. I knew I was looking for a better father than the one I had, but I didn’t know I was looking for a Papa. It turns out I was looking for someone like you, Francis.
Until I met you, I had become slightly embarrassed to say I was a Christian, given what the punishmentalists were doing to give Christianity a bad name. By punishmentalists, I mean the people who imagine God is a judge rather than a gracious creator. I mean the ones so determined not to go to hell that they make hell, instead of heaven, on earth. God is grace and love and peace, not blame and shame.
I also serve a congregation in Greenwich Village in New York City where even the straight people like me are slightly queer. I’ve been ordained for decades, and I’ve been ministering here in New York for ten years. If you don’t mind my saying, despite the unlikeliness of it all, I have fallen in love with you. I think you are the real thing. I don’t think you’re perfect, but I think you are damn good. You’re probably as good as it gets.
I was born a Lutheran; a Missouri Synod Lutheran— that’s the conservative kind. We Lutherans are known for our disdain of all things Catholic. We love to tell the story ad nauseam of our hero, Martin Luther, putting the Ninety-Five Theses up on your church’s door. We love to tell how your people sold indulgences and we live by grace. We love to tell how your people let the pope tell them what to do and that’s why we wouldn’t think of voting for John Kennedy, a president who might follow a pope more than the Constitution. I have a feeling we have in common the experience of religion-based opposition—for you, coming from the hidebound Vatican elite, and for me, from the hidebound evangelicals to my right. Uncanny, isn’t it, that your theology resonates so powerfully with mine?
I know we’re both trained as community organizers—me by Saul Alinsky and you by the streets of Argentina, brimming with liberation theology and more trouble than I ever saw. I know we are both sneakily political and really don’t see the difference between politics and religion. I also know that we are bothered by the same things—the face of the poor and the desacralization of the earth—and that we have common enemies in instrumentalism (the way people use each other) and capitalism (that potentially good system that has gotten too big for its britches). I have very little of what Ross Douthat calls your “ostentatious humility.” I am a woman. We can’t afford to be meek.
But all excuses and differentiations aside, I shouldn’t like you as much as I do. I used to hate your people with a vigor. I even wanted to title this book Is the Pope Protestant?, as a way of bringing you into my fold instead of my going toward yours. I wanted to use that old joke as a way of justifying how attracted I am to you. That way, I wouldn’t be so embarrassed by my previously strong prejudices against your kind. I admit it: I am a recovering anti-Catholic bigot.
I first realized I was way too into you for normal feelings when I preached my first sermon about you. I had read the encyclical Laudato Si (meaning Praise Be) as soon as I began to hear the buzz. Everybody was talking about it and about you, and I am nothing if not a faddist. I love fads. And style. And buzz. You qualified on three levels. I figured you were an interesting fad. You had a cool car, a Fiat; you liked the spaghetti of the day and were putting on weight. You wore regular shoes.
You are not a fad, it turns out. I didn’t have any idea then how much competition I would have now in loving you. Not that I want you just for myself. I don’t. But I was amazed by the way my pretty-obnoxious congregation received my sermons about you. I sort of whispered them at first. You know, trial balloons. Since irony always works in my pulpit, I asked sly questions, like this: “Wouldn’t it be amazing if the pope became our environmental leader?” The response was overwhelming: people started smiling and clapping. And this is a tough, New York crowd!
Then when you said, “Who am I to judge?” regarding GLBTQ people, I flipped. I preached several sermons on that statement, thinking it a major breakthrough in just about everything, including the punishmentalist Christianity we both despise. Finally, I had something good to say about you and Jesus, all in the same breath. I was thrilled. And my congregation uncannily kept clapping. And clapping. And clapping some more. “Tell us more about the pope,” they said in the narthex after the service.
Before our affair, I didn’t know how depressed I had been—spiritually, ecologically, and politically. You filled a void in my heart that I didn’t really know was there. And you were so full of fullness! I’m almost embarrassed to say so. You are important in such an unassuming way that I doubt you care about how you look. You put the humble in the humility, the gravity in the gravitas.
You’re going to put the word pontification out of business. You are refreshing religion. You have a bubbly joy in your escape from the security bubble. You are giving Christianity a good name. I never thought I would hear a congressional standing ovation for the Golden Rule, but now I have. Way to go!
I shouldn’t have been so taken with you, but I was and am. I love what you have brought out in me—the way you have become my favorite spiritual antidepressant. I love you more than the wine I drink at the end of an evening or the wine that comes after we break our Protestant bread in our Protestant way. You have eased our spiritual constipation and made it safe to be a Christian again in the real world, even in New York City. I love the way you stick it to the phony Christians, of whom I hope I am not a member. OK, a little bit. Who am I to judge?