NEW ROCKFORD, N.D. — The veins in Judy Belquist’s body pump Protestant blood as thick as Methodism’s European origins.
And yet when the conversation turns to Pope Francis, Belquist becomes downright giddy.
This past summer, while on a trip through Europe, she and her husband, Jim, visited Italy, and ended up in Vatican City for a day.
“We were not allowed into St. Peter’s Square at that time because there were 75,000 Scouts from all over Europe, waiting to be addressed by the pope,” she explains.
So the two hung out on a “short street” just outside the Square, lunching on street pizza.
“Suddenly, the gate to the Square opened, and out came Pope Francis, standing in the back of a Jeep,” she recounts. “There he was, not more than 12 feet from us. I threw my pizza on the ground, scrambled to get my phone camera out, and then I started crying.”
Belquist says seeing Pope Francis was the highlight of their three-week tour, and she proudly shows the pictures they procured that day to everyone, including the images hanging on her fridge near photos of loved ones.
She’s hoping to find a life-sized, cardboard version of the pope to have in her home, just for fun.
“I perk up every time I hear or read anything about Pope Francis,” Belquist says. “I feel he has already made a difference in the world and I am sure he will continue to do so.”
As an historical writer and professor, Danielle Mead Skjelver of Rugby lives and breathes the teachings of Martin Luther, a founder of the Protestant movement. And yet she considers the current Catholic pontiff “a rock star.”
“I spend much of my time writing about Martin Luther, who would probably not approve of our pope,” Skjelver wrote in an email in between class commitments. “I attend a Lutheran church and would describe myself as comfortable with the mystery. Even so, I claim Pope Francis as my pope.”
Skjelver says like Jesus, who was a revolutionary, “Pope Francis revives this spirit of breaking free from what constrains us — selfishness, comfort, personal backgrounds, fear and attachment to the way things have always been done — in order to serve people.”
She says his “humility and relentless compassion” take her breath away. “He makes me want to be Catholic.”
Daniel Haglund, Moorhead, was raised Lutheran. Now, as a Sons of Norway officer, he’s sworn not to promote any political or religious causes. But strictly as an observer, he says, he’s struck by how many beyond Catholicism are drawn to Pope Francis.
“This pope is addressing more topics of the time, instead of being more of a hardliner,” he says, noting the Catholic bishops’ synod this month discussing such things as divorce, homosexuality and cohabitation. “Of course, these are issues of all people, not just Catholics.”
Haglund also finds it interesting that Pope Francis has “taken somewhat of a stance on climate change,” and yet isn’t shocked, either. “He was trained in science, many decades before (becoming pope). I have an appreciation for hearing more from the scientific perspective, rather than just a gut feeling.”
And when the pope shirks convention, like dining with the homeless rather than politicians, Haglund can’t help but draw parallels.
“Jesus did the same thing,” Haglund says. “He didn’t judge people based on where they were at, but on their potential, and (Pope Francis) operates on the same kind of principal.”
Bill Gauslow, Prescott, Ariz., formerly of Grand Forks, says that as a lifelong Lutheran, he’s “never had much use or interest in the bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church,” but finds Pope Francis “a paradigm shift for Catholics.”
“I look at the Lutheran Church as being the quiet, successful church of Christianity, almost a hidden treasure,” he says, adding that Pope Francis is “as much Lutheran as he is Catholic.”
Regarding the pope’s recent visit to the United States, Gauslow notes that though he’s not the first pontiff to come here, none has modeled love quite like Pope Francis.
“The others were a little bit preachy and stoic and mechanical, whereas this guy’s got a heartbeat,” he says. “It doesn’t hurt that he’s also got a great big smile and a teddy bear face.”
Gauslow watched on television as a woman in Philadelphia, who’d dressed her child in faux papal clothing, caught Pope Francis’ attention. “When he first saw the kid on the side of the street, he just lit up like a firecracker.”
Though Pope Francis’ presence has come later than he would have liked, Gauslow says, “Better late than never. His perspective is very human to me. I like him a lot. Long may he modify this world for the best outcome.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Oct. 10, 2015.]