As I slouched on the sofa during spring break of 2013, I watched with mere academic interest as white smoke rose from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel — a full two years too late.
By the time the cardinals selected Francis, I had already cast off any religious sentiment a Catholic or even intellectual Protestant might attach to such a historical moment. I certainly felt no spiritual eagerness to learn what God had in store for the direction of Christianity over the course of Francis’s tenure.
Had I heard the “Habemus Papam” and watched Pope Francis lead Christianity in a new direction just a few years earlier, my life might have turned out differently.
Growing up in the hills of Appalachia in rural Georgia, the pews of my Methodist church were my greatest source of comfort. From an early age, I remember riding with my grandmother as we listened to church hymns on the radio en route to Sunday service every week. Though at first I was primarily interested in the candy the lay leaders would hand out, I eventually grew to appreciate the words coming from the pastor’s mouth.
In time, my appetite only grew stronger as I thirsted for answers to life’s biggest questions. Soon I was a regular not just at Sunday service but also at the Sunday school that preceded it and the Wednesday volunteer work that followed.
Church meant something to me: It gave me a sense that I was connected to some larger plan. More importantly, the community service that came along with it gave me a sense of noble purpose in which I believed deeply. Church and religion represented a way of life that rejected pride and focused energy on doing good and acting purely.
So even as other members of my family stayed home on Sunday mornings, the lure of purpose drew me like a magnet to the chipped paint of that little white church on the mountain every week, without fail.
As I matured in my intellectual thought and studied American history more thoroughly, I sought out ways to scale up the work of the church to have an even greater impact on the poor and marginalized. Yet I discovered, to my dismay, an active resistance to such solutions among my fellow Christians.
We prepared food for the needy nearly every week but cowered away from tough conversations about institutional poverty on a national scale. We took up collections at church to help a sick congregation member afford medical bills but refused to talk about the economic inequality plaguing our national health care system. And, as the final tipping point, we talked at length about the purity and strength of love but drove to suicide those who dared fall in love with someone of the same sex.
We were timid. We Christians either never truly believed in helping those who could not help themselves, or else we were simply too cowardly to take bold, meaningful steps to do anything about it.
The cascade of realizations left me disoriented, and eventually I just walked out, never looking back.
But since that time, I have seen Pope Francis forge a path entirely different than that of the church I rejected late in my teens. His unapologetic commitment to combating poverty, rooting out corruption and even mitigating the effects of climate change has set him apart as a leader keenly aware of the large-scale sufferings many Christians have thus far conveniently rejected.
He represents, in short, everything I wanted to believe about my religion so many years ago. In fact, had I seen such a bold vision articulated by Christians in my teenage years, I have little doubt my faith would have only grown stronger with age.
If I am being honest, it is likely too late for the Pope and others like him to heal the deep wounds inflicted on me by an institution I once revered. My faith, once burning bright, has long since fizzled.
Yet, despite it all, I still genuinely believe that Christianity can be a powerful force for good. Christians have the power to change our world for the better and to make our economic systems a little more just, a little more humane.
If they do that, if they follow Pope Francis’s advice and recommit themselves to the eradication of poverty and the empowerment of the marginalized, they can keep those like me who grew frustrated with Christianity’s petty social battles from walking out the door. They can give us something in which to believe.
I needed them to have that courage back then. Lots of others need them to have it right now.
Tyler Blackmon is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.