Wineke: Pope Francis won’t reform church but he may save it

Wineke: Thanksgiving ruling on pastor taxes will change churches

The more I see of the new pope, the more I am reminded of my personal theological hero, the Rev. Will D. Campbell.

Campbell, who is now 88, used to be famous. He was famous for being a civil rights leader — Will was the only white man at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was one of four persons who escorted black teenagers to Little Rock High School at the beginning of the civil rights movement.

He was also a Southern Baptist preacher who drank copious amounts of whiskey and who, at a meeting of the National Council of Churches — which asked him to be a featured speaker because he was famous — called on the liberal churches of America to pay reparations to the Ku Klux Klan.

The thing about Will is that he never fit into the molds his supporters and admirers wanted him to inhabit. He had a motto: Don’t just “do” something; “be” something.

He was not and is not a perfect man; but it is hard to encounter him without wanting to follow him.

During the years I worked for the national office of my church, I once spent some time with him on his farm near Mount Julet, Tenn. He assured me that if I really wanted to be a Christian I might do well to forget about the “steeples.”

I get the same feeling about Pope Francis. In the days since his election last week, the world has gone crazy trying to fit him into a mold.

His fellow bishops, for example, are fond of saying St. Francis of Assisi received a message from God to restore Christ’s church and that God obviously thinks the new pope should do that same thing. The fact that St. Francis did not restore the church seems a bit irrelevant.

What St. Francis actually did was to embrace a life of absolute poverty, dressing in rags and traveling from town to town preaching Jesus. That witness was so compelling that people came to follow him and to embrace faith in Christ. But the established church continued unreformed.

St. Francis didn’t reform the church. A case can be made that he did save it.

Pope Francis is also unlikely to reform the church. Those cardinals and archbishops who live in mansions and exult in luxury are unlikely to give up their power or their status, no matter how fervently they kiss the pope’s ring.

He, like my hero Will Campbell, is an imperfect man. Unlike Will, Francis accepted positions of power and prestige in Argentina. He didn’t get to be a cardinal by living a life of unchallenged integrity. There are plenty of people willing to challenge his record as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

One of the sacrifices a person makes by accepting positions of power is that with power comes the necessity to compromise. That may be one reason the new pope keeps referring to God’s mercy. He knows he needs it, as we all do.

Francis will not be successful in reforming his church. He may, however, save it.

Because we can already see that his practice of personal modesty, his embrace of the poor, his willingness to engage both the mighty and the powerless has earned him enthusiasm by the young around the world.

If the new pope can demonstrate that Christianity is — and has been — a religion for, as he puts it “of the poor and for the poor,” then the church might ultimately survive.