You Don't Have to Be Catholic (To Worship the Pope)

Despite 2,000 years of persecution of my Jewish ancestors, there was nothing I wanted more this week than to claim Pope Francis as my own.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
Pope Francis in Philadelphia, September 26, 2015.
Pope Francis in Philadelphia, September 26, 2015.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

So it’s come to this. After two millennia of persecutions and executions, massacres and pogroms, false aspersions and forced conversions, inquisitions, disputations, book-burnings, blood libels, boycotts and curses; despite all the Pontiffs and prelates and priests who accused the Jews of killing Jesus, of emulating Judas, of kidnapping Christian kids, of sucking the lifeblood out of pious believers; notwithstanding the exploitation, the excommunication, the hypocrisy, the pomposity, the pedophilia, the pederasty, the cover-ups, the subjugation of women and the ongoing discrimination against gays and lesbians and what have you.

Despite all the above and much, much more, I found myself humming this week, to Tevye’s tune, “If I were a Catholic, Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.” I realize it’s no great shame to be Jewish either, but for once, Catholic is better. I’m not talking forever here, just a few days, even 24 hours will do: We can call it Catholic for a Day. I don’t need to be baptized, go to mass or celebrate Eucharist. I can do without Ave Marias or Hail Marys and can certainly forego the Holy Trinity. I won’t bother with processions or confessions, though a few of those nifty absolutions could certainly come in handy.

If I were a Catholic, even for a day, I could claim Pope Francis as my own. I could say he was my captain, my role model, my inspiration. I would look benevolently at my fellow man and woman, believers and atheists alike, and say: this is the kind of spiritual shepherd that we Catholics have produced. What have you got to offer? And they, burning with envy, would mutter “There goes a Catholic” as I went on my way.

I realize that Pope Francis has been conveying eternal and universal values, applicable to all races and creeds, but let’s not kid ourselves: for Catholics it’s been extra special. They’re on a roll like they haven’t been in years, perhaps even centuries. As the Pope led mass at New York’s St. Patrick Cathedral last week, I passed by several Manhattan churches, usually abandoned on weekdays, and witnessed the crowds chattering excitedly outside before they went in to pray. I am a strictly unreligious person, but I was keenly jealous of their joy, of their elation, of their enthusiasm, of their renewed self-confidence, sense of purpose and obvious pride.

Even if you consider yourself a total rationalist and a complete agnostic, even if you view tales of divine interventions as nothing more than contrived poppycock, it’s hard to deny the clear cut evidence: This particular Bishop of Rome is nothing less than a grandmaster of modern miracles. Within a few short days, the almost octogenarian Argentinian prelate - whose English, I hope he forgives me, is barely decipherable - conquered Washington, neutered New York and flattened Philadelphia. He turned pretentious politicians into gushing groupies, morphed jaundiced journalists into babbling cheerleaders, turned the rich and famous and the high and mighty into frantic fans aching for the wave of his and or the glimpse of his eye. And he precipitated, at the very least, the dramatic resignation of the highest elected Republican in the realm.

Pope Francis dominated the airwaves from morning to night, drew thousands to the streets that he passed, spoke to millions of Americans, young and old, and truly touched their hearts. He captivated Catholics, of course, but also beguiled Buddhists, hooked Hindus, mesmerized Muslims, pulled in Protestants, seduced Shintos, tantalized Taoists, zapped Zoroastrians and, of course, jujued the Jews, perhaps even more than the rest. Remind me when was the last time such a thing has happened.

Instead of division, he preached unity. Rather than arrogance, he practiced humility. In a place that worships wealth, caters to celebrity and prays for power, he championed the poor, defended the downtrodden, turned his back on the trappings of his exalted position. I don’t know how many times he brought tears to my eyes on Sunday as I watched him stop his cute black Fiat at Philadelphia airport to kiss and bless 10-year-old Michael Keating, who suffers from cerebral palsy. This, I thought to myself, is the essence of empathy; this is what true leadership should look like.

Inevitably I compared Pope Francis to the kind of leaders, both spiritual and temporal, that we have been burdened with in recent years, and I’m not naming any names here: those who inflame and incite, who sow discord and thrive on threat, who shed ideals to line their pockets, who hobnob with billionaires and dance to their tunes, who foster fear, spread suspicion and cultivate xenophobia, who ignore the poor, feed fear of strangers, stoke anger at immigrants. Those who, in a million years, would never dream of hugging the homeless or embracing the crippled or comforting the lowliest dregs of society, as Pope Francis does, time after time, with dignity and grace And they may even be right, because on any day of the week we would probably view anyone who behaves like the Pope as pandering or weak or grievously misguided about proper priorities and the jungle out there.

Pope Francis reminded people not of who they are now, but of what they once aspired to be. He showed religion not as it is, but how it could be. He took America on a ride to a magical world in which good overcomes evil, modesty outplays conceit, generosity trumps ego, the powerful protect the weak, community overcomes self-interest and no one, but no one, is left behind. In many ways, it was the ultimate sacrilege: a world in which the meek inherit the earth instead of being pushed to the sidelines, in which peacemakers are called the sons of God, as Jesus promised in his Sermon on the Mount, rather than being ridiculed and reviled as goofy but dangerous nafs.

It’s utter fantasy, of course, so it’s good the Pope is finally heading back to Rome, so that everyone can return to their usual self-centered plans and self-absorbed diversions. But it was undoubtedly fun while it lasted, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, as he was once known, can certainly take pride in the dramatic theological revelation that he leaves behind him, which may be his enduring legacy. To quote an old rye bread commercial, you don’t have to be Catholic to worship the Pope.

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