It’s one of the most maudlin clichés in all of holiday fiction: The naïve kid who gets to sit on Santa’s lap, only to reveal that all he wants is to have some recently deceased relative back.
This year, we lost my Uncle Bert. He wasn’t a blood relation, but a friend of the family so dear that we had always treated him like one. In addition to being one of the warmest and most loving people I’ve ever met, he was also a fascinating, well-rounded guy: a connoisseur of old movies and the opera; a lover of dogs; a side-splitting impressionist; a celebrated teacher; and an accomplished stage actor. One photo he left us shows him posing in costume from of his favorite roles: Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons.
He was also a devout Catholic. Whenever he came to visit us in Florida, my parents would drive him to mass. It wasn’t our faith, but they were happy to oblige. Were his religion responsible for even one-tenth the wonderful man he was, I think they would have taken him halfway across the globe to replenish it.
His death last July was mercifully swift and painless. That was a relief to all of us: Instead of spending weeks fretting over his failing condition, we were instead free to occupy the time reminiscing about how much we had adored him.
In the half-year since Uncle Bert left us, a new Pope has been busy vindicating everything he was and lived for.
I won’t bother running down the almost wondrous accomplishments of the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio; for that, you can turn to the tributes in publications as diverse as Time and the Advocate, both of which named Pope Francis their Person of the Year. By now, you’ve heard all the stories of the foot-washing, and the greed-bashing, and the olive branches extended to the persecuted. It’s been one heck of a campaign -- the sort that makes adherents of other faiths give sincere props, and moves even the agnostic to remark that this is what religion should be about.
Albert Kupferer, RIP.
It’s also a fitting memorial to our Bert, who, for all his devotion to the traditional trappings of Catholic worship, was about as far from a cold and unforgiving scold as a person can get. I hear about Francis sitting down to dinner with a homeless man and his dog, and I experience the same feeling of comfort – of family -- I used to get sitting in my Uncle’s well-worn easy chair and listening to him enthusiastically describe the night’s viewing options on TCM.
I know there are some who scoff – who say this Pope is only different in style and tone. That he’s merely putting a more compassionate face on the same old exclusionary dogma. And to some degree, I can see their point: You could make a decent argument that his position on the gays, for example, is only a softer version of Phil Robertson’s: “Respect” everybody you meet, even if you know that a basic condition of their birth is an abomination before God.
But that argument, I think, misses the crucial distinction Pope Francis has been drawing between “tolerating” and “not judging.” The former merely requires one to permit the existence of things and people one finds odious (and frees one up to solicit a merit badge for it); the latter involves not just accepting but welcoming. And Francis’ declaration that even those who believe in no God are blessed in His sight is just about the most welcoming Western religion gets.
Now, how does this not say "love"?
And anyway, let’s not discount the critical importance of style in faith -- particularly in Catholicism. (Admit it: Those cool-ass gargoyles have made you consider converting at least once.) In matters of theology, how things are said is almost as important as what’s said – especially since one drives the other. Profess enough genuine love for the Other, and before you know it, you might actually start to feel it.
That’s not even taking account the actual change this Pope is effecting by removing cardinals who persist in pushing doctrines of division. In fact, part of me wonders if Francis might end up being the Catholic Church’s Mikhail Gorbachev: a reformer who does so much to change the institution that he eventually realizes he’s no longer part of it.
But that thought runs the risk of denying my Uncle Bert’s faith, so I’m not going to pursue it any further. Instead, I’ll just say the way of Francis is the Catholic Church as many think it could and should be. Even those of us who have only experienced it through a loved one’s eyes.
Thank you, Your Eminence. Not even a Hollywood Santa could have brought my uncle back for the holidays, but you’ve done something even more miraculous: You’ve made sure he never really has to die.
Oh, and Merry Christmas – to the Person of the Year, from the Man for All Seasons.
Days without a response from the publication that plagiarized from me and won’t come clean: 187.
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