Jim Jenkins

The pope, from a back Baptist pew

Last Christmas, I gave my best friend’s mother, a dear and funny Catholic lady long of my acquaintance, a large calendar featuring Pope Francis. The pope, now visiting the U.S., had by that point charmed with world with his humility, his profound writings, his genuine concern for the less fortunate and the sick and yes, his progressive views on social issues.

The president of the United States and leader of the free world even appeared impressed indeed when the pope arrived in Washington Tuesday. You know a person’s important when Barack Obama comes to greet him.

I told my friend’s mother that the pope’s personal grace and humility even got me thinking: “I gotta say that though I was raised a Baptist, this guy is really something. He might even get me to convert.”

To which she said with her typical quick irreverence, “If you do, honey, we’ll have the biggest First Communion party there’s every been!” I don’t know what she meant exactly, but it sounded like more fun that the usual post-baptism gathering with lime ice in a punch bowl and pimento cheese sandwiches in the Baptist fellowship hall.

But on a larger scale, this pope speaks out, fearlessly, with a passionate seriousness criticizing the greed of capitalism run amok, recognizing the reality of climate change, the danger of guns and the need for all nations to welcome refugees and immigrants.

In those actions, he reminds me of women and men of conscience whom I knew growing up at Pullen Memorial Baptist in Raleigh, where liberals have occupied the pulpit for nearly 75 years.

While other, more conservative Baptist churches rarely veered out of the conventional lane when it came to social issues such as civil rights or women’s rights, while others didn’t get involved in Vietnam war demonstrations or peace vigils, the Rev. Bill Finlator and his successors had the accelerator pedal down. Today, the Rev. Nancy Petty carries on the tradition.

But popes have not been so inclined, so Pope Francis has gotten the world’s attention. And that, even, of members of Congress.

Anticipating his appearance before Congress on Thursday, some of the more conservative Republicans are actually saying they don’t want the pope to talk about anything close to politics. “I don’t need to be lectured by the pope about climate change,” said one Arizona congressman, a Republican. And from Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma: “I think it’s totally inappropriate that the pope is weighing in on all the real sensitive, far-left issues.”

Good grief, fellas. You do understand this is the pope, right? Leader of 1.2 billion Catholics. The Holy Father. So while you may not care much when somebody boos President Obama or even shouts an insults at him (as happened), let’s hope you don’t forget your manners in front of the entire free world.

The pope is not afraid to speak up for the downtrodden and social justice and against greed, qualities unfortunately in short supply in the U.S. Congress (and in the North Carolina General Assembly). He seems to be guided by the humble example of Jesus and his own conscience, which would seem not bad qualities for a spiritual leader.

Would the politicians simply have the pope stick to the Good Book and ignore everything else around him? Clearly they would. So this priest, or any other pastor or religious leader for that matter, is obligated first and foremost to not say anything that would offend powerful people? I don’t recall that was the guiding principle of the man from Galilee.

Instead of criticizing the pope’s activism and fearlessness and compassion in advance, members of Congress ought to be taking notes.

Jenkins: 919-829-4513 jjenkins@newsobserver.com