Given how the visit of Pope Francis to the U.S. has dominated the headlines this past week, I would be remiss if I didn't make a few comments about what I learned from his visit (and yes, even those who are not Catholic can learn something from the great religious leaders of the world, no matter what their faith tradition). But before I begin, let me stipulate that I have a number of theological differences with Pope Francis. Much as I respect him, I wish he would take a bold stand and modify the church's ban on contraception-- for one thing, Jesus himself never said anything about this subject; and most Catholics in western countries simply ignore the ban. But more important, the lack of access to birth control is one of the main reasons for extreme poverty, especially in the third world. Given that the pope genuinely cares about the poor, it would be humane for him to address the issue of family planning. Of course, I understand that he probably won't. But that doesn't stop me from wishing he would.
Theology aside, what I found the most impressive about his visit was his consistently courteous tone. Even when he waded into the proverbial "hot button" issues, he did so with civility. He did not shout, he did not scold, he did not condemn. He gave his views, he represented church teachings, but he did so in a way that did not castigate those who might disagree. That is something to be praised, and it's also something all too rare these days. We hear too many political figures lashing out at their opponents, name-calling and slinging insults; we hear too many religious figures sitting in judgment, claiming that only their interpretations are correct and anyone else is deserving of scorn. The pope chose neither of those styles. He defended his (and the church's) beliefs, but he did so in a way that was neither judgmental nor scornful.
And he modeled tolerance in a very personal way: he joined with faith leaders from other traditions, including Jews, Protestants, Hindus, and Muslims, in a service to remember those who died on September 11, 2001. He didn't have to. He could have taken a hard line (as some other religious leaders might have) and said that since he does not agree with those other faiths, he would refrain from praying with them. He could have said, as some popes said centuries ago, that members of other faiths are in error and must be converted by any means necessary. But he didn't do that either. And since he holds the traditional view that women must not be priests or lead the service, he could have refused to be on the stage with women prayer-leaders. But once again, his tone was one of inclusiveness. And many of us found that very refreshing.
As an educator, I was especially pleased by what the pope did, because I know that tone matters. Yes, the Catholic Church has its rules, and Pope Francis did not advocate breaking them. But he taught about those rules in a way that said "Even if you disagree with me, we can still be kind to each other, and we can still seek common ground." I have been in classrooms where I saw teachers ridicule students who were slow, or harshly correct students who got things wrong. Agreed, there are students who are exasperating, students who don't work as hard as they should. But mocking them is probably not the best way to inspire them to change their behavior. Whether in a house of worship or in a classroom (or in congress, for that matter), those who hold authority need to do so in a way that is neither imperious nor unkind. I am not suggesting that we all should join hands and sing "Kumbaya"-- believe me, there are times when students can try anyone's patience, and when they absolutely need to be corrected, or held accountable for what they did wrong. But as the pope demonstrated, you can adhere to the rules in a way that doesn't make the other person feel invalidated, and you can state what you think is wrong in a way that doesn't make the other person feel stupid.
In the end, those of us who differ with this pope on issues of theology will probably continue to do so. But I hope we can conduct those disagreements the way he did-- with a willingness to listen, and a willingness to discuss our differences courteously. For the best rule, it seems to me, is the Golden Rule: treat others the way you would like them to treat you. That is what I saw from this pope, and I hope I continue to see it long after he has returned home.