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alex beam

Francis gives other denominations a case of ‘pope envy’

Pope Francis smiled on Wednesday, after his weekly General Audience in St. Peter's Square.ETTORE FERRARI/EPA

Pope Francis (real name: Jorge Mario Bergoglio) has shaken up the Catholic church with some plain speaking about faith and about life in the 21st century. He has had an impact on other faiths, as well. Welcome to “pope envy.”

I first encountered the term in an essay by Jana Riess, a liberal Mormon writer. “I’ve delighted in seeing this beautiful revitalization of hope in the Catholic Church,” Riess wrote, “but I’ve also felt twinges of (an admittedly un-Christian) envy.”

Why wouldn’t a Mormon, or anyone for that matter, envy the un-self-conscious spiritual leadership of a prelate who warns nuns that there is more to the monastic life than just smiling for God, and who sneaks out of the Vatican, disguised as a parish priest, to minister to the homeless?

Furthermore, as Riess notes, Francis is very much out there in the real world. The Mormons’ “Prophet, Seer and Revelator,” 86-year-old Thomas Monson, chosen by seniority rather than by merit, “is unusual in his distance from the public, the media, and his own followers,” she writes. In Monson’s rare appearances, “almost nothing was unscripted. He does not do press conferences, and seldom fields unexpected questions.”

Comparisons are otiose, of course, but Pope Francis is anything but cloistered from the real world. At times, he seems to yak on about whatever comes to his mind, just as you and I do. He has said that he lives in a hotel rather than in the isolated papal apartments “for psychiatric reasons.”


Francis plays odd pranks, dispensing rosary beads packaged as pharmaceuticals, or donning a clown’s nose. I don’t know why he acts this way — because he feels like it?

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin recently evinced some ecumenical envy in the Jewish Daily Forward. After calling Francis “the most ‘Jewish’ pope we have ever encountered,” Salkin went on to praise Bergoglio’s literacy, compassion, and his outreach to Jews in his native Argentina.

“It is enough to create pope envy,” Salkin wrote.

It is indeed. I understand that most of my friends, and some readers of this column, have little use for the serried pieties of organized religion. But, apart from Francis, who dares to speak with moral authority these days? Money-grubbing college presidents, hiding behind their amassed endowments and their fancy new athletic centers? Don’t make me laugh.


The man in the White House? As if. I have trouble imagining either Barack Obama or George W. Bush decrying the “economy of exclusion and inequality” ravaging the world today. Both men have avidly licked the boots of the titans of capital.

Not Francis. “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless,” he recently opined. He’s tossing the doctrine of St. Milton Friedman out the window, condemning “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

The Mormons, the Jews . . . what about my co-communicants, God’s Frozen People, the Episcopalians? We jettisoned the pope almost five centuries ago; what do we have to show for it?

We have a wonderful bishop here in Massachusetts, Thomas Shaw, who has some vague reporting relationship to a presiding bishop in New York, a former marine biologist named Katharine Schori. She in turn owes some fealty, or lack thereof, to the Archbishop of Canterbury in Great Britain, a woolly figure of occasional ridicule in the sharp-elbowed British press.

The man currently warming the Anglican throne is Justin Welby, a former oil executive who was “enthroned” in March. Welby has inveighed against high energy prices, against excessive materialism at Christmastime, and has condemned celebrities such as Katy Perry and Madonna (!) for wearing the cross as a fashion accoutrement.


Perhaps he is on the right track. But I say, enviously: He’s no Pope Francis. Few are.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.