Dear Papa Francesco,
Thank you for the letter you sent us all. Even if just a few of your intended recipients reply you will be inundated, so I will keep this relatively brief.
It really was a great delight to read your letter. The way you start in poetry and go on to embrace politics and end in prayer struck me as a perfect example of what we should hope for from our spiritual leaders. My own view has long been that Christianity goes most badly wrong when three related things happen. First, when people get preoccupied not with the practical contingencies of bodily life but with issues of control of others. As a person with huge leadership responsibilities you must know what it is like to feel so anxious about things that you wish you could just get more power and take complete control. But I also think that your position is one in which that is such an absurd prospect, and such an obviously dubious one given some of the things that have happened in the past, that you appreciate that true leadership comes not from supercharged control-freakery but from deep influence and sustained partnership.
The second thing that corrupts Christianity is the loss of the aspiration for humility and simplicity. Of course no one can achieve these virtues, but they are certainly evangelical values, definitely part of the Christ-like package. I think you have shown us that you believe this both in the way you have approached your role and in your choice of name. Christianity which isn’t in some sort of way Franciscan is at best a paradoxical project, and is often perceived as mere hypocrisy – perhaps because it is.
The third reason that Christianity goes wrong is that its adherent and leaders concern themselves with the abstract formulation of propositions more than with the practical contingencies of life. I wonder whether this is one of the reasons why people like you insist on the importance of the poor. There is something about the condition of poverty which disinclines people to worry about the kinds of dispute that can never be resolved. And you are right – we must listen both to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. You have convinced me that they are the same cry.
I love the way in which your letter draws so many issues to the surface. As I started to read it I was expecting something more focussed on the description of our environmental crisis and the need for a political response. What you gave us was much more interesting as it was so thoroughly about relationships – not in an abstract way, but in a concrete and yet universal and multi-dimensional way.
Your letter is a genuine challenge to us to connect, think, relate and live differently. Not only do you challenge the way we too often see things and make decisions – through the lenses of the ‘technocratic paradigm’ – but you also invite us to delight in the simple things, to relax and enjoy what is, and to re-imagine happiness; indeed, to discover joy.
I said a few things along these lines in book I wrote a few years ago called ‘Barefoot Disciple’. In fact the last chapter was called ‘Bodily Spirituality’. I now realise that I was just scratching the surface of these issues. Anyway, if you don’t mind I am now going to think of you as the Barefoot Pope.
One of the most common questions that I get asked after services I conduct at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, is why, in an Anglican Chapel we say, in the creed, that we believe in the ‘catholic’ church. I always answer that this is because we believe in the universality of the church; that it potentially embraces all and that there is unity deeper than our historic divisions.
If I may say so your letter reads to me like one from the leader of a catholic church in this sense. No capital letter, no ‘Roman’ to qualify it: the universal church of all who are both dissatisfied and distressed with the way we live today and its consequences, and yet not inclined to drift into despair or despondency, as if God doesn’t care, or doesn’t exist, or can’t ultimately redeem.
The letter is firm but generous-hearted, and spot-on in its critique of the absurdity of the free market destruction of both values and environments through the elevation of greed to the status of a virtuous necessity. And it reaches out far beyond the dominion of your many dioceses and parishes, schools and institutions to the heart, mind, conscience, politics, ethics, and spirituality of all people. I do hope that by writing to you like this I will encourage a few others to read it for themselves.
With my thanks – and prayers for your ministry,