One of the most incredible moments of Pope Francis’s stay here in the United States occurred when he selected Martin Luther King, Jr. as among the “greatest Americans”—but not just for the reason one might think.
Yes, his decision to praise a nonviolent, black freedom fighter before a law-making body that remains disproportionately white and war-happy is noteworthy on its own. (Even as I wish he would have made the connection between emulating MLK and opposing white supremacy a bit more explicit.)
But this moment is even more remarkable precisely for what seems entirely unremarkable about it. He did something so unremarkable in fact that the vast majority of us probably did not even realize that it happened: the Pope lifted up a Protestant named after Martin Luther as a model of Christian discipleship.
This would not have been possible in another age. For much of our history, this thought would have been unthinkable; the precious few who perceived holiness, let alone salvation, outside of the Church could have never been Pope.
The impossible has become not just possible, but ordinary.
I think about what this moment would have meant to my mother when she was a little kid and how significant it would have been to her. My mom grew up Catholic, but her mother did not. My maternal grandmother, whose name was Jane, was born at the tail end of the First World War to loving Lutheran parents. As a young woman, my grandmother fell in love with the Catholic Church and exchanged one tradition for another.
Despite the pain this decision surely caused them, my great grandparents never scorned their daughter. They remained devoted parents until their deaths. They were also wonderful grandparents to my mother. In fact, even though I never met my maternal great grandparents, my mother spoke about them so often that I have always felt like I knew them. My mother’s stories have become like memories to me.
I know my great grandpa as the kind and gentle man who would sneak my mother Hershey Kisses every time he came over for a visit. I know him as the cause of my mother’s insatiable love for peanuts and popcorn. I know my great grandma as the woman who would cut her leftovers each night into tiny little pieces and bring them over to feed the wild kitty cats that roamed my grandpa’s barn.
I also know that my mother spent her childhood burdened by the intense fear that both of her beloved grandparents would burn in Hell for all eternity.
That’s how much the Church has changed. The nearly certain now seems practically unthinkable: today, little Catholic children rarely fear for the salvation of their Lutheran grandparents.
Let me be clear: Catholics can make an idol of the future just as surely as they can make an idol of the past. Just as we can confuse the limitations and prejudices of our predecessors for the Tradition, so we can confuse the progress of a promised future for the Eschaton.
Yet the reign of God does reside in the future, just not the one that we human beings would make if left entirely to our own desires and devices. God has always come to us from the future. We await what God will do in the future for the same reason we remember what She did in the past: God reveals Herself to us in history. How else could She sate her desire for relationship with us?
Evidencing this, Scripture depicts God as One who responds to us. In Exodus, God heard the cries of the enslaved Israelites suffering under the lashes of their Egyptian overseers and was moved to action on behalf of them.
Scripture even depicts God as One who changes His mind for the sake of us. At the beginning God created just one human being and thought He had given him the world. God was wrong. God learned of Adam’s loneliness and gave him non-human animals as companions. God still had not gotten it right. But God cared about Adam’s flourishing more than he valued His own pride. God tried yet again and made for him another of his own kind. God knew what was good for Adam only by getting to know him. God discovered human nature even as He created it.
Every aspect of the Tradition was once somebody’s future. In this way, the Tradition is as much in our future as it is in our past. We cannot of course know with any certainty how the arc of God’s self-revelation will bend. If we could, it would be a prediction and not a gift. But we do know that it will come.
We belong to a Church that places us in communion with saints that have not lived yet. We draw life from a Tradition that is not finished yet. We worship a God who remains unchanging in Her love for us by sometimes changing how She relates to us.
We must live in the present, but let us remember that it does not have the final say. A child who worried about the salvation of her Lutheran grandparents lived to hear the Pope take the holiness of Luther’s most famous namesake for granted. God’s future has brought her the miraculous impossible. What will it bring us?