Pope Francis and the Secular World

As I Was Saying

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.

About the Author

Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (3)


Thanks Leonard for this article concerning the Pope 's recent visit to the USA. There certainly was a lot of enthusiasm, both from within the Catholic church and from those outside the church. I had a different take on the public response than what you had, though.

I think Christians look at society through a different lens (a dark gray one) than what society looks at itself. I think Christians think, generally, of the world as fallen and depraved. The fact that Western culture is increasingly abandoning Christianity doesn't mean (in society’s mind) that they are sinking into a sinful mentality. Rather, they think, Christianity is increasingly seen as illogical, like all other religions. That doesn't mean that most people aren't concerned about moral issues, though. People are generally good and look for good in others. That's what our society sees in the Pope, a champion of the good. Our society doesn't think of the Pope as a champion of the gospel or of Christ. It’s not a spiritual hunger, as you suggest. People see the Pope as a champion of the downtrodden, sort of like a Robin Hood. Western society, in general, is good, hopes for good, and strives in that direction. Sure, there are bad people out there, but the world’s not all depraved in the sense that the Bible paints people.  I imagine that would be our society’s take on the Pope’s visit.  Sounds like a secular write off to me.

I think Catholics look at the Pope differently. Many Catholics see him as almost divine. As miracles were a sign of Jesus' divinity, Catholics wanted the Pope to touch their babies and sick, to work miracles. Seeing and touching the Pope was like a miraculous experience. And the fact that this Pope comes down to the commoner's level makes him even more like the divine Jesus.

To the Catholic, the Pope 's visit was almost a visit from God. To our society, his visit was a demonstration of good, a visitation by a modern day Robin Hood.  And all gave praise.

I would posit that the explanation for the public reaction to the Pope is much simpler and less tantalizing: western infatuation with celebrity.  Simply put, the Pope is the world's most well known celebrity, and in western culture celebrities are worshipped. 

If indeed Europe (or America) is so drawn to the Pope as a spiritual leader, why are these adoring masses so unwilling to heed the teaching of the Pope?  Did the secularists of Europe really "respect" the Pope, or did they temporarily sentamentalize and idolize a celebrity figure?  Is it in any way respectful to disregard the Pope's actural words?  Are they heading the Pope's teaching on gender, sexuality, and abortion?  I doubt it.  That's some sort of respect. 

I would also beg to differ that the Pope is particularly "authentic".  After all, this is a man that supposes to speak at times without error, assumes the title of the sole Vicar of Christ, and willingly allows people to refer to him as "His Holiness".  Nothing is more down to earth and authentic that someone who presumes to hold such a place of importance and utter authority. 

As to the concluding premise: No, the church should not replace the call to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ with a gospel of social good and morality.  God saves throught the proclamation of the gospel, not "gospel values". 

Wow, I clearly typed the preceding much too fast.  Please forgive the multiple typos.