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'What is religion for, anyway?'

The sudden and completely unexpected appearance of Pope Francis, following the drearily predictable pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, leaves many gasping.

It's almost as if Mother Angelica, with her drearily predictable decades of the rosary, were to be suddenly transformed into Lady Gaga.

The last two popes were unyielding conservatives.

The German Benedict XVI, who preferred playing eighteenth-century motets on his piano to presiding over the universal church, nonetheless yearned to roll back all the messy but liberating advances of John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council.

The rigid John Paul II, just before Benedict and somewhat after the great John, had no lived experience of democracy, having come into adulthood under the Nazis and afterwards operating under the severe restrictions of Russo-Polish communism.

Despite his formal praise of constitutional democracy, John Paul II wanted no such thing within the bounds of the Catholic Church and was even scandalized by the open debates that took place among bishops in the course of Vatican II. If you know the Truth, why would you need to debate?

Francis is Latin American and looser than either of these predecessors. He has certainly put compassion at the top of his list, far above rigid orthodoxy. Such an astonishing change prompts the question: What is religion for, anyway?

Religion is so often used to cloak hidden (and outrageous) purposes, such as land grabs (e.g., the incalculably bloody Thirty Years' War, waged over which European realms would be Catholic and which Protestant) and property grabs (e.g., the Salem Witch Trials). So we must always ask ourselves the fine Latin question: cui bono — who will profit?

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Sometimes the answer is shamelessly obvious—as in the case of Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, Roman Catholic bishop of Limburg, Germany, who recently finished spending some $42 million to renovate his Episcopal palace.

So egregious is his self-love that the bishop was suspended from his diocese last year by the Vatican.

Less egregiously self-loving bishops, who have spent far too much on their own comforts and splendors, but not enough to attract international attention, will probably keep their seats. (And let’s not go near the subject of all the bishops who, out of fear of discomfort, have covered up for untold generations of pedophile priests.)

Even when greed or self-protection is not involved, never underestimate what a smug sense of superiority will do for many a religious chap. This smugness is invariably accompanied by the need to be exclusive: my religion is better, purer, more recherché than yours. Indeed, there is an aspiration that runs through religious history, no matter which religion is being studied, that we might call the desire to limit membership—and limit it severely.

Many years ago I attended a religious publishing convention during which I was asked several times by people I was just being introduced to—with all the unsmiling seriousness of a CIA inquiry—“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”

To these questioners there was no point in further discussion of anything if I could not answer this question affirmatively. Such people are excluders, who want their circle—the circle of the saved—to be exclusive, as small and as (uncomfortably) intimate as possible. Luckily for me, the convention was held in late 20th century America, so I had no fear of being burned at the stake if I fumbled my answer. Still, I fancied I could see the licking flames in the eyes of my interlocutors. John XXIII named them “Prophets of doom.”

“Sourpusses” is Francis’s dismissive term for the same crowd.

Another negative expression of religion, perhaps the one that most of us are most familiar with, is the tendency of ordained clergy to exalt themselves over everyone else. Jesus’ insistence that we call “no one on earth [our] father” and “no one on earth [our] rabbi” is the commandment that most clergy tend to transgress most eagerly. (Regarding the “rabbi” reference: Jesus didn’t know he was a Christian; he thought he was a Jew.)

How long does it take clergy to assign themselves titles, intended to force every head but theirs to bow? In the case of Christianity, only a few decades at most—from the time of Jesus to the creation of a hierarchy (that is, a “sacred” ruling elite) by the end of the first century AD. And though Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Anglicanism manifest the most elaborate forms of hierarchy within Christianity, there are plenty of Pooh-Bahs in other Christian denominations, as well as in religions far beyond Christianity.

Francis has been acting as if even he is aware of the inadvertently comic dimensions of being addressed as “Your Holiness” and of being treated as if that title could possibly be a reality for any mere human being.

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In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, he even lays on his own shoulders an awesome task: the “conversion of the papacy.” So his pontificate may open a road seldom traveled by formal religion.

Good religion always has a certain air of spontaneity about it, being neither greedy nor self-protective, neither exclusive nor hierarchical, but rather exceedingly lacking in discrimination, wishing to include and aid as many as possible in a loving embrace.

To do this one must lower one’s standards—at least in the eyes of the excluders. But from another perspective—the perspective of the includers—one is simply opening the windows to fresh air and the doors to all comers.

One is acting as Jesus, for instance, advised in the Sermon on the Mount when he blessed the poor in spirit, the humble, the merciful, the peacemakers, and those who hunger and thirst for justice. One is acting as Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu, advised in his repeated meditations on that sermon: “How can we, little crawling creatures, so utterly helpless as He has made us, how could we possibly measure His greatness, His boundless love, His infinite compassion … How can we measure the greatness of God who is so forgiving, so divine? Thus, though we may utter the same words [as Jesus did] they have not the same meaning for us all.”

Which brings me to my ultimate and outsized assertion about these matters: good religion is necessarily mystical, affirming what is always beyond proof, likelihood or even possibility (so take that, Richard Dawkins).

Just think of Job, perhaps 27 centuries ago, insisting that all his supposedly comforting and quite comfortable friends are wrong, that, as Job insists in an assertion without proof: “This I know: that my Avenger lives and He, the Last of All, will take His stand upon this Earth and in my Flesh shall I see God!"

Quite impossible, quite batty, really, and utterly necessary. For only such a reality can redeem, vindicate or avenge the innumerable injustices of history, the slaughtered, the oppressed, the tortured, the abused, the abandoned, the forgotten, the despairing.

A courageous friend of mine, a woman in her sixties, a gifted painter of beautiful and ominous nature, has spent years mourning the loss of her only child, a young man who committed suicide more than a decade ago. She lives in the Connecticut River Valley, where I visited her amid the red and gold of mid-October. How she survived her child’s suicide I have no idea. She certainly knows what darkness is. But she has joined a small community that is half Sufi, half Quaker, where her sense of the mystical universe is accepted and even honored.

Never denying her suffering, she is returning to the land of the living. The colors of that autumn, she affirmed solemnly, were the most beautiful she had ever experienced. Nature is dying, but the thrilling colors are a pledge. Of what exactly, it may be hard to say. But I suspect that, like Job and against all odds, she harbors a sneaking suspicion that there may be life beyond death.

Thomas Cahill is the author of a series titled, "The Hinges of History," which includes the bestseller How the Irish Saved Civilization. Volume VI of the series, Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World, was published in November.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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