While watching CNN live on a flight to New York City a few days ago, I turned to my husband and said, stunned, “The Pope is in New York right now!”
We had no idea that our wedding anniversary trip to the Big Apple would coincide with Pope Francis’ visit. I’m the person in our family who monitors the news religiously, so I don’t know how I missed it.
We learned that the Pope was going to make an appearance at Ground Zero the next day. Not one for crowds, we decided it would be wise to avoid that area in the morning and swing back in the afternoon.
[Photo by A Lads Club Escapette on Flickr.]
But for the next hour on the airplane, I was captivated by the up-to-the-minute coverage of the Pope’s visit to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Pope Mania had definitely swept Fifth Avenue and all of New York City. Anderson Cooper was covering the event on CNN, bringing on several guest to commentate.
Pope Francis made his way through the throngs of people after he delivered a moving homily. He warmly greeted countless people while trying to exit the cathedral. Amazed by the endurance of someone in his late seventies, I thought about how tired I would be after a huge event like that. Heck, I’m exhausted after attending a baby shower!
When the Pope’s cavalcade headed the wrong way up Fifth Ave—normally a one-way street, but blocked off for this special event—one of the journalists joked, “They are driving the wrong way down a one-way street; oh the powers the Pope has!”
“Powerful” seemed to be the theme of the news commentary afterward.
“What an amazing man. A powerful presence. I’ve been in politics for 41 years and this was one of the most amazing moments I have ever experienced. Waiting in line, my hair was standing on end.” – NY Senator Chuck Schumer
Anderson Cooper said the Pope had a special “aura about him.”
From the looks of my social media news feeds the next day, “Pope Fever” had swept the rest of America, too. Friends, acquaintances, and popular bloggers, authors, and speakers I follow were wild about Pope Francis.
At first glance, this is a great thing. He is arguably one of the most popular popes in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Many political and news commentators have mentioned that he is just what we need in this current climate where people are cynical about religion.
I agree with that to a certain extent. Pope Francis seems genuinely compassionate and concerned for the poor and marginalized in our society. It touched my heart to see the video of him stopping his motorcade in a farming town in Italy to kiss and bless a disabled child. We could make the case that the Pope’s fame is causing people to investigate the things of God and faith, and that should be celebrated.
However, in this unique season of “Pope Francis Fever” and an interesting upcoming presidential election, I want to share four biblical reasons why believers need to stop praising popes, presidents, and all people for that matter:
1. THE BIBLE ASKS US TO PRAY FOR OUR LEADERS, NOT PRAISE THEM. Paul urges believers in 1 Timothy 2:1-3 that “petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior…”
I am hard-pressed to find a Bible verse that says we should praise any human being. Very little space is dedicated to acknowledging admirable qualities of even the best men and women that have ever lived. (Esther, Jeremiah, and the martyred apostles all come to mind.)
In the New Testament, when we see people mistakenly praising the disciples or angels, they are quickly correctedand redirected to God. Acts 10:25-26 says, “As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. ‘Stand up,’ he said, ‘I am only a man myself.’” And when an angel visited John on the Isle of Patmos, this happened: “At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, ‘Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus’” (Revelation 19:10).
2. PRAISE CAN QUICKLY TURN INTO WORSHIP, WHICH TURNS INTO IDOLATRY. It’s our human nature to want to worship something tangible. We see throughout the Bible people carving images of wood and gold for themselves to bow down to. They believed these objects carried power and could help them. But Habakkuk 2:18 warned, “Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman? Or an image that teaches lies? For the one who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak.”
[Photo by: Lawrence OP on Flickr. “After Mass, Pope Francis venerates the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and offers her a rosary.”]
In our modern-day idolatry, we worship money, power, pleasure, and people. Just look at the highly successful Idol format reality competition that has been produced in about 58 countries around the world. (There hasn’t just been an American Idol for the last umpteenth seasons!) Television producers know we crave someone to idolize, hence the popularity of this franchise. Yet the first three of the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses were concerning our devotion to God, and God alone (Exodus 20). Nothing—and no one—else should take His place.
3. THE GREATEST MINISTERS OF THE GOSPEL WERE HATED, NOT ADORED. Senator Schumer said he told Pope Francis, “All of New York loves you—Catholic and non-Catholic alike.” Schumer continued, “He is a humble, modest man but he is amazing… The way this Holy Father moves people is through their hearts and through their thinking.” He said hearing the pope speak was “captivating” and “totally hypnotic.” I know it’s not Pope Francis’ fault that others would heap this adoration upon him, but these type of statements concern me.
Yes, it’s true that Jesus Christ and His disciples had thousands of people following them at times. When Jesus fed the people and healed their diseases they loved him, but as soon as he started saying offensive things like, “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood,” many people turned away (John 6:48-66). Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, and all the disciples lived in humble circumstances. They were not famous or celebrated. Every single one of them suffered at least one, or a combination, of the following: revilement, poverty, beatings, stoning, imprisonment, shipwreck, exile, and death. When they entered a new city, some welcomed their words, but many times they were literally run out of town (Acts 14:19).
And do not forget what Jesus told His disciples,
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).
4. JESUS CHRIST IS OUR ONLY HOPE. It’s understandable that people would place their hope in a politician or religious for change that is so desperately needed. One journalist said Pope Francis has “utterly revitalized the political relevance of the Vatican.” In a cab ride to our friends’ house in Jersey City, a woman on the radio said, “Our world is falling apart, and we need him.”
No, we need Jesus. That may offend you, but the Bible says, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (1 Timothy 2:4-6). He alone came to die for the sins of the world so that we could have peace with the Father. Not a president or presidential candidate, not a pope or a pastor, not a celebrity or an author. Just Jesus.
I like that the pope has declared this the “Year of Mercy” for the Catholic Church. In our superficial society, I’m so glad people are listening to someone who has substance and concern for the poor. I hope it somehow leads others into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and to care about the same things He cares about—the poor, the broken, neglected, abused, and imprisoned. That would be a very good thing. But we must take care not to let “good” substitute what is great, or replace the One for whom there is no replacement. In this dark and broken world, Jesus Christ is our only hope. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).