On the Priest of St. John’s

Ah, Rome! The Eternal City. I’ve been there twice but only went to the Vatican and the Vatican Museum one of those times. It’s an amazing city for art, architecture, and history. You can’t spit for a ruin, or a church, or a ruined church. And to walk out of the Rome subway system and see the majesty of the Colosseum rise before you…it’s magic. But I want to talk about a church building and the priest of that church that does not lie within the borders of the Vatican City.

While we all know about St. Peter’s, the church I want to introduce most of you to is called St. John Lateran. It’s named for two of the Johns from the Bible–John the Baptist and John the “beloved” Apostle of Jesus. It’s located almost 3 miles of the Vatican, and, having been consecrated in the 300s, it boasts of being the oldest public Christian church still in existence in Rome and the oldest in Western Christianity (those Eastern Orthodoxers have older ones).

The priest of St. John’s at the moment has been the head of that church for the past 10 years, and he is quite an amazing fellow as those fellows go. He’s an older guy (83) who was born Mario Bergoglio. He became a Jesuit in the late 1950s and taught in seminary before becoming an ordained priest in the late 1960s. What makes him special, at least in my mind, is that for a guy who comes from such a traditional Catholic background, he’s pretty progressive when it comes to seeing his work as being one of service to others.

Let’s not debate the abuses of religion in general and Catholicism specifically in this format. Allow me to tell you what I really admire about this simple priest of St. John’s church. Here’s an example of what I mean. During August, most of Europe goes on holiday–everybody. That includes people who work in the Catholic church. That sounds reasonable until you consider that a lot of beggars come to Rome in the summers to make money off the tourists who flock there. Those people who are mostly homeless rely on the largesse of the Catholic Church for food often and even for a place to shower or to stay the night in a shelter. What Father Bergoglio did was tell his staff that they had to take their August vacations in shifts so as to not shut down the mechanisms that helped the homeless population of Rome. In other words, he argued that the Church couldn’t simply walk away and leave people without resources for a whole month. In my mind, that’s pretty noble of him. In fact, Bergoglio himself still takes some shifts in the soup kitchens during the month, even at his age. It’s the rare priest or minister who practices what he preaches.

Here’s another example. As the priest of St. John’s, Bergoglio has as one of his perks a luxurious apartment where he could live–if he so chose. However, he does not live there. Instead, he chooses to live in the much smaller and much simpler guest house. His argument is that all he needs is a bed.

These and other stances have gotten him into trouble with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. He is against capital punishment. He is for a more tolerant stance regarding same-sex relationships. He has spoken out against the excesses of capitalism and has advocated for laws addressing climate change. You can see that these stances might ruffle some feathers in the Vatican, and, indeed, they have. The Catholic Church has maintained its power for hundreds of years by being traditional and unchanging, and here is one of its most high-profile priests speaking like a modern radical practically.

You might think the Pope would step in and address some of these actions and positions taken by Bergoglio. Would it surprise you to learn that the Pope actually hasn’t spoken out against what the priest of St. John’s Lateran says and does?

You shouldn’t be surprised. Pope Francis isn’t the priest of St. Peter’s Basilica, after all.

And Francis is the name Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose when he was made Pope and became the priest of St. John’s ten years ago.


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