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As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

I recently returned from a trip to Austria and Croatia, two largely Roman Catholic countries. It was not hard to see and feel the overwhelming secularization of the people and the cultures, a phenomenon happening throughout Europe.

Many of the historic churches have become mostly museums rather than houses of worship for the masses. There is a sense of spiritual and cultural malaise, as must surely happen when people no longer have a story by which they live.

Our visit happened to coincide with the visit of the Pope Francis to the U.S. It was remarkable how many people wanted to talk about him and his visit. To them he is Papa, the Italian word for Pope, and he is deeply loved and respected.

I wondered why it is that in this radically secularized culture there could be such respect for a religious figure. Why wasn’t the Pope ignored? What does he have to do with people’s lives?

The answer, I believe, is that there is still a deep spiritual hunger, even in the hearts of secular cultures. Here is a man who not only symbolizes the church but gives voice to the church’s gospel message in ways that resonate with people. In him they realize that it’s not just about the rituals of worship (though these rituals energize and deepen the gospel message in people’s lives), but also about justice and peace, mercy and authenticity, and the possibilities of transformation.

In other words, the Pope’s words and his demeanor ground the gospel in the real world. That’s hard for secular people to write off.

I don’t know whether Pope Francis can sustain this authenticity amid the struggles of the church he leads, but I think the phenomenon of his “pope-ularity” does tell us that the gospel message still has legs in the midst of secular culture. The secular vision is, after all, short on hope. Its weakness lies in its lack of a coherent story that tells us who we are and how we should live. Rather than relying on “come to Jesus” evangelism, the church might well take notice of the Pope’s approach. Speak clearly and boldly in the public arena about the gospel values and commitments, and demonstrate by our lives what it means to live out God’s story in the world today.

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