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Dear Pope Francis,
Please forgive the informal tone of this letter. Knowing that you will probably never read it liberates me to speak to you as I wish I could. Plus, I have no earthly idea how to strike the right tone for addressing a newly-minted pontiff.
When white smoke wafted from the Vatican furnace on Wednesday, I held my breath along with 1.5 billion of my Catholic brethren and wondered what I would feel upon hearing your name: cynicism (for an appointment conceived and approved of by the Roman Curia)? Wonder (in the event that our own Sean Cardinal O’Malley, for whom I have worked, received the nod)? Or even fear of further alienation (should the appointee be very conservative)? I did not, however, anticipate the flutters of hope and pride I experienced.
No, I did not see you coming.
Nevertheless, out onto the balcony you stepped and said, “Here I am.” You became the first pontiff to name yourself after St. Francis of Assisi, the greatest advocate of the poor in the history of the Catholic Church. You are the first pope from the Americas, hailing from a part of the world where people are actually flocking to the Church, rather than fleeing from it. You are also renown for favoring public transportation over the usual chauffeured limousine.
Now that you’re here, you should know that you hold my hope, and some piece of my faith, in your hands. As they are quite dear to me, I write to ask you for two things.
First, remain true to the name you have chosen. Someone once said to me, “The poor will always be with us, but the same people shouldn’t always be poor.” Our global economy increasingly eschews the Catholic principal of the dignity of work — the spiritual need to produce something with our hands, gifts and time — in favor of mechanisms that do nothing but multiply individual wealth. The world’s poor can’t afford the ante for that poker game, and we hunger to be called on to do so more than creating the means for accumulation. No need to abandon the Church’s historical belief in free market economies over socialist and communist systems. But as the free market moves to the extreme end of the continuum, so many are lost. Help lead us out.
Second, be the kind of man who would read this letter. The successor to Saint Peter may be the “voice of God on Earth,” but you are still human. I’m not suggesting a democratic Catholic Church. I’m suggesting that enlightenment comes, in part, through dialogue. Even those who are sure they know the truth can benefit from listening to a counter-argument.
Over the centuries popes who have listened and accepted outside counsel have produced theological triumphs in times of great need. The body of Catholic social thought, which produced such important concepts as solidarity and fundamental human dignity, came from listening to workers and the poor facing the strains of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, Vatican II’s declaration that the Church is not the clergy but the people of God came from John XXII, the last pope who was elected at age 76 and who listened to the accumulated voices in making the change.
Catholics and non-Catholics alike have suffered a great deal in the last few decades because clergy did not listen thoughtfully, and humbly, to the flock. Listening to the people will help us all heal and just might produce the next great theological revelation.
Thank you, Pope Francis, for taking the time to read my note when you have so much to do. I appreciate you considering my modest requests. There were several other subjects I thought about adding, but these two just seemed so important.
Besides, I can always write again.
Editor’s note: Tiziana Dearing served as the first woman president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston from 2007 to 2010.
This program aired on March 15, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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