change the world, we must be good to those who cannot repay us.”
– Pope Francis
While Forbes Magazine may say otherwise, I think that the wealthiest man on Earth is the Pope. The Catholic Church has been amassing wealth steadily since 325 AD when they cut a deal with the most powerful man on Earth, the Roman Emperor Constantine. The Pope controls the holdings of the Church all over the Globe and has dominance over 1.2 billion Catholics and a strong influence over many others.
How ironic that the Catholic Church has elected a Franciscan to lead them, a man who has not only vowed chastity, but poverty.
The contrast with his 265 predecessors couldn’t be more striking … almost as striking as the contrast between the Jesus of poverty, generosity, humility and inclusion and the religion of splendor, wars, bigotry, misogyny and exclusion.
That the Papacy has changed is also quite remarkable as his church is also one of the most entrenched bureaucracies ever developed. These seventeen centuries have not just brought Catholicism enormous uncounted wealth, but also a vast army of people who have found a niche in the system and work wholeheartedly at keeping that niche well-supplied and well-supported.
You can’t help but like and admire a man who is supposed to live in splendor in an opulent palace but chooses to bed in a small cell and to eat cafeteria-style with the workers that serve him.
One thing you might notice is that the Pope is happy … genuinely happy most of the time. He has chosen to serve rather than be served. It isn’t his vast wealth or immense power that has made Pope Francis happy, it is his choice to be of service to others. Contrast his pinched-faced predecessor, who insisted on protocol and ceremony and condescension; who shunned non-Catholics and even many Catholics who happened to be gay or transgendered or in need of respite from endless childbearing or in some other way less worthy, less deserving of grace, less entitled.
This idea of serving others, of finding compassion in empathy, of leaving childish selfishness behind and making ourselves useful and productive and cooperative within the bigger picture, I first discovered in the book The Art of Happiness written by the Dalai Lama, another selfless world leader. While the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet forced the Fourteenth Dalai Lama into exile, he was not forced into anger or demands for revenge. He calls for rapprochement and understanding instead.
We find these men: Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama incredibly charismatic, almost irresistible in their calls for tolerance and mutual understanding. I see this as a spiritual movement which made great strides in the Twentieth Century until it ran into the political movement of fear, blame, greed and grandiosity. “No,” this counter movement shouts, “We must not trust. We must not be patient. We must prepare for war so that we can continue to be victorious, the greatest nation on Earth, the world’s superpower.”
We went back to fomenting unrest, bullying and misleading others, to lies and fear and a great deal of dishonesty. Reagan defied Congress in sending arms to a small group of dissidents in Nicaragua who opposed the duly-elected socialist government there. Then he lied about his involvement, letting his point man take the blame and do the jail time. Meanwhile, his promises to America didn’t pan out. His tax cuts for the wealthy allowed them to open sweat shops in Indonesia, India, China, Malaysia, and other places that had no protections for workers or the environment. His deregulation led to monopolies and abuses. The gutting of financial regulation led directly to the Enron disaster, billions in upside-down government-insured home loans, and bankruptcies in many of our pension funds and annuity programs. Just about everything he did made extra, unneeded wealth for the already wealthy and hardship for everyone else.
Today, Ronald Reagan is still touted as a paragon of virtue, a beacon of hope as we vote between Presidential candidates that both have serious flaws and we, as a people with our own serious flaws, can’t seem to get together at all. The thing that seems to divide us is the nature of our “greatness.” We all agree that we are the “greatest” nation on the face of the earth, but can’t seem to agree on what wars we have to win to maintain it or what small Third World Countries pose a threat to our continued dominance in the world. We seem unable to resist invading other countries and are always surprised when our invasions meet ongoing resistance and foment violence both there and within our own population. The more we try to “fix” things with our unlimited power, the more things spin out of control.
I am happy we have a Pope who tries to live his beliefs and stays faithful to his order. Maybe, just maybe, we could learn something. We do not need to bully the world. Certainly, our intervention in World War I might have been needed, but the betrayal of Arab allies after the war was a perpetration caused by our flawed religious texts, our unprecedented grandiosity and our alliance with another bully: the British Empire. The bankrupting of Germany because they lost was another serious crime, which we paid for in the next generation.
At least we learned something there and, after the Second World War, we rebuilt our enemies, an act which continues to return dividends to both sides.
We can live in a cooperative world or an competitive world. We actually get to choose. Let’s think long and hard about this choice.