One of my favorite shows in the early days of TV at our house began with the tagline: “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird; it’s a plane – It’s Superman!”
Disguised as a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, with his sometimes clueless colleagues Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, the “man of steel” was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
He fought a constant battle for “truth, justice and the American way” against all manner of crime and corruption in and around Metropolis.
You may wonder why this memory came to mind as I read the report of Pope Francis’ recent Christmas address to his Vatican colleagues.
Described as a “blistering critique” of a “narcissistic pathology of power” and “existential schizophrenia,” the pontiff called on all the leaders, including himself, to engage in a radical self-examination and recommitment to the service of Christian justice and away from the contentment of comfort and privilege.
I can imagine a rather startled Vatican hierarchy thinking, “Listen! Up there at the podium. It’s Amos; it’s Isaiah; it’s Jeremiah – It’s Pope Francis!”
The address was delivered to the assembled cardinals and bishops, but its message seems extremely relevant to all branches of the Christian family and other communities of faith.
The long history of institutional life suggests that it is the nature of institutions of all kinds to reflect a momentum toward complexity, especially when they succeed at accumulating the resources and structures to expand their mission.
Such success also seems to increase their vulnerability to self-absorption and an embrace of the perquisites of power and privilege.
A slippery slope of misdirected priorities has pulled many an institution away from the noblest of motives that might well have accompanied its beginnings.
The prophets of ancient Israel addressed this issue in the covenant community’s life from Amos and Isaiah in the eighth century to Jeremiah nearly 200 years later.
The gospels report stern words from Jesus toward those who were “at ease in Zion” while others were marginalized and treated with injustice.
Prophetic voices, known and unknown, in the generations since have kept alive the reminder that the structures of life are at the service of life’s missions rather than the other way around.
The oft-quoted observation of early 20th century journalist Finley Peter Dunne that the duty of a newspaper is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” captures the spirit of this prophetic voice for any generation.
Pope Francis leads a mega-institution whose history has preserved the Christian tradition and reflected profound expressions of ministry by millions of disciples throughout the ages.
Without these initiatives, it is hard to imagine Christian faith as we know it today.
The church also reflects the challenges faced by all institutions that attempt to structure, organize and program concrete responses to a mission that involves the coordination of many callings.
Chief among those challenges is the tendency for the bright lights within the house to limit our vision of things in the darkness outside or even in the darker corners within.
The pontiff’s words to his colleagues make clear his awareness of this vulnerability that all in positions of leadership share.
The visibility of his public presence and the clarity of his public voice have made his commitment to the many dimensions of human need quite evident.
His willingness to take the risks of advocacy in controversial areas reflects a courage that is fueling hope on many fronts, even as it generates resistance on others.
His straightforward diagnosis of institutional vulnerability, his own acceptance of that diagnosis toward himself, and his encouragement for self-examination and renewal of commitment to the gospel’s calling puts him in good company with the voices that have “comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable” throughout the covenant journey.
Perhaps here at the rather arbitrary threshold of the beginning of a new year, all branches of the human family can hope to hear and heed the wisdom of the voice of this world leader.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.