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Pope Francis: A model ministry

October 15, 2015

Editor’s note: This is an edited version of a commentary published Sept. 29 in The Jerusalem Post and written by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan. The rabbi and Imam Khalid Latif, the Muslim chaplain at New York University, offered reflections before Pope Francis spoke at a multireligious gathering Sept. 25 in Foundation Hall at the 9/11 museum. The article was redistributed by Catholic News Service in response to editors’ requests for a regular sampling of current commentary.


Pope Francis has shifted the conversation away from “who is out” to “who is in”; away from what behaviors will preclude you from the services of the church to how the services of the church must be better deployed to serve those at the periphery of society.

It is not so difficult to think of pockets of Jewish religious leadership who would do well to adopt Pope Francis’ posture.

Respecting tradition and “menschlichkeit” are not mutually exclusive propositions. It is this posture of inclusion, not exclusion, that should guide our efforts as a Jewish community.

Aside from the change of tone, what is most refreshing about Pope Francis is the inability of the media or political establishment to fit him into any ideological box.

He preaches on family values and environmentalism. He speaks to an ethic of personal responsibility and social welfare. He is tough on abortion and same-sex marriage, and he is also an unflinching advocate for immigrant rights. This pope isn’t really a conservative or liberal – his leanings don’t fit tidily into any chart – and I think that is great. Pope Francis is a powerful counterargument to the polarized debates of our time.

His model suggests that ideological consistency has nothing to do with political affiliation, but is rather a litmus test of a much higher integrity.

One of the many ills afflicting us this political season is the fact that a candidate cannot be, for instance, a social liberal and a fiscal conservative, or the other way around. We don’t permit complexity in our leaders, but because this pope isn’t running for office, he is able to be complex. God is neither conservative nor liberal, Republican nor Democrat, hawk nor dove. This pope gets that and it is a model well worth considering.

The close listener can discern a thread that connects Pope Francis’ calls for environmental stewardship, theological humility, global responsibility, economic justice and more.

In each case, it is the abiding belief that every human being is created in the infinite dignity of God’s image that demands that we care for our world and each other. No matter what our theological differences may be, in insisting on a rigid uniformity of belief we diminish the dignity of another person’s right to their beliefs. As stewards of God’s creation, we are obligated to care for our “common home” in a manner that speaks not only to our present needs, but to those of the unborn generations to come. So, too, in our attention to the plight of the poor and the refugee, our obligations are founded not merely on the golden rule of “do unto others,” but also on an awareness, as Pope Francis said to Congress, that as a nation of immigrants, America must be attentive to the present humanitarian crisis engulfing Europe. This is a message that the Jewish community knows well. It is our awareness that we were once strangers in a strange land that calls us to care for the condition of the strangers in our own midst and era. As a Jewish community, we would do well to study the contours of Pope Francis’ vision to find points of common cause and collaboration.

The very fact that Pope Francis has insisted on speaking to the issues of the day is a model for us all. His words and actions remind us that the point of religion is not descriptive, to describe the world as it is, but rather prescriptive, to describe the world as it ought to be. In his insistence that faith be an instrument of peace, not violence, in his insistence that the church be “a field hospital after battle,” healing wounds and warming hearts, Pope Francis is reinvigorating the prophetic voice of faith in our communal discourse. And he has done so with a deep and abiding humility. Having sat next to him, I can report his demeanor is not overbearing.

Whatever his rank may be, there is a humanity to the man, a humanity that strikes me as being deeply concerned with the condition not just of every human being, but of a common humanity.

Pope Francis has given all people of faith a model that we can aspire to emulate.

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