By Rev. Joe Walker, Minister of Congregational Care
The Pope slapped a woman’s hand.
Perhaps you remember the New Year’s Eve incident: As he was leaving a receiving line an overzealous pilgrim grabbed the Pontiff’s hand pulling him off-balance. Pope Francis reacted by slapping her hand and barking at her before his security detail could intervene.
Critics rushed to opine that Pope Francis was a fraud, that his instinctual response to perceived danger showed his “true colors.” By extension, some argued Christianity itself was fatally flawed. If the Pope cannot practice what he preaches – who can?
For his part, during a New Year’s Day address, the Pope diverged from the prepared text to apologize. “Love makes us patient,” he said. “So many times we lose patience, even me, and I apologize for yesterdays bad example.”
In a Washington Post opinion piece Ruth Marcus proposed, “Is there a better illustration of the frayed state of our collective nerves than the fact that the Pope slapped a woman’s hand? Is there a better example of how we should deal with our inevitable imperfections than the Pope’s swift and un-caveated apology?”
This news story captured my spiritual imagination. I reflected on the incident itself and the commentary surrounding it and, at first, I surfaced some fairly obvious lessons:
- I “fall short” (to borrow Paul’s phrase) and I am grateful for God’s grace and forgiveness in my life. I am thankful for the Bible stories where God was merciful to our ancestors, they give me hope for
- When I respond to physical danger or emotional pain out of my human animal nature, I amplify the fear or hurt and send it rippling through our social relationships.
- I normally think of patience as a virtue for the long-haul, but in this example patience needed to override “fight or flight” in a split-second.
Then Spirit turned my attention to the question of how one grows in love and patience and sincere repentance throughout a lifetime. That’s easy, right?! My ol’ standby answer is “work the basics” of Christian life. Get to church on Sunday and bring a friend, pray a lot, commit to a small group, and serve and sacrifice. One might counter that the Pope goes to Mass every day, kisses the feet of immigrants, speaks tirelessly of Jesus’ call to love and yet he still sins.
Yes, he does. I do, too. (Jump in here if you feel led to do so.)
But I believe the spiritual practices of Christian life are still vitally important because they remind me that God forgives me when I fall. Daily disciplines and routines lift me and turn my attention to grace. They encourage me to try again and again to be a better expression of God’s love in our world. I am profoundly grateful to the Christians who went before me and modeled those practices for me. I pray with all my heart and soul that I may – however imperfectly – model and perpetuate the Christian life for those generations who will follow.