What Is The Meaning Of Pope Francis?
You don’t have to be a believer to recognize a moment of grace. By grace I mean those precious, rare times when exactly what you were expecting gives way to something utterly different, when patterns of thought and behavior we have grown accustomed to and at times despaired of, suddenly cede to something new and marvelous. It may be the moment when a warrior unexpectedly lays down his weapon, when the sternest disciplinarian breaks into a smile, when an ideologue admits error, when a criminal seeks forgiveness, or when an addict hits bottom and finally sees a future. Grace is the proof that hope is not groundless.
How to describe the debut of Pope Francis and not immediately think of grace? For much of this new century, Christianity seemed to be in close to terminal crisis. Among the fastest-growing groups in society were the nones – those indifferent to religion entirely. Especially among the young, Christians became increasingly identified with harsh judgments, acrid fundamentalism, the smug bromides of the Prosperity Gospel or, more trivially, neurotic cultural obsessions like the alleged “war on Christmas.” Evangelical leaders often came and went in scandal, or intolerance or both. Obsessed with issues of sexual morality, mainstream evangelicalism and the Catholic hierarchy in America entered into an alliance with one major political party, the GOP, further weakening Christianity’s role in transcending politics, let alone partisanship. Christian leaders seemed too often intent on denial of what intelligent people of good will saw simply as reality – of evolution, of science, of human diversity, of the actual lives of modern Christians themselves. Christian defensiveness was everywhere, as atheism grew in numbers and confidence and zeal.
To make matters far, far worse, the Catholic hierarchy was exposed these past two decades as, in part, a criminal conspiracy to rape the most innocent and vulnerable and to protect their predators. There is almost nothing as evil as the rape of a child – and yet the institution allegedly representing the love of God on earth perpetrated it, covered it up, and escaped full accountability for it on a scale that is still hard to fathom. You cannot overstate the brutal toll this rightly took on Catholicism’s moral authority. Even once-reflexively Catholic countries – like Ireland and Belgium – collapsed into secularism almost overnight, as ordinary Catholics couldn’t begin to comprehend how the successors to Peter could have perpetrated and enabled such evil. And meanwhile, the great argument of the modern, post-1968 papacy – against non-procreative and non-marital sex for straights and against all sex for gays – ended in intellectual and practical defeat in almost the entire West, including among most Catholics themselves. American Catholics have long been one of the most supportive religious demographics for marriage equality. And when a debate about contraception and healthcare reform emerged in the U.S. early last year, the Catholic bishops chose to launch a defining crusade against something that countless Catholic women had used at some point in their lives.
And in all this, the papacy was increasingly absent from public debate, focused on building a smaller, purer church in seclusion from what Benedict XVI saw as the moral relativism of modernity. His vision of the church was securing its ramparts to wait out a new, long age of barbarism (as Saint Benedict had done many centuries before as the Roman Empire crumbled), pulling up the drawbridge in rituals, customs and doctrines that became almost ends in themselves. This is what some have referred to as the “Benedict Option” for the church – a term inspired by a powerful jeremiad by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre,After Virtue, in which he despaired of “the new dark ages already upon us.” What we needed, MacIntyre thought, was another Saint Benedict, the man who gave rise to the church’s monastic system – in other words, the kind of small, pure, separate communities that helped Christianity survive after the decline of the Roman Empire. Gone was the sublime, striding confidence of the charismatic anti-Communist Pope John Paul II in the first years of his papacy; what remained was what his gregarious, powerful personality had for a while obscured – a pinched, arch-conservative Catholicism, more attuned to early twentieth century Poland or Bavaria than to the multicultural 21st Century generations of an increasingly global world. Three decades after his charismatic appearance on the world stage, we can now clearly see that John Paul II and his successor bequeathed a much stronger papacy in a much weaker church.
And then, out of the blue, two remarkable things: the first modern papal resignation, and the whisper of a name emerging from the Sistine Chapel as the conclave of cardinals decided on a successor. The name had always been a sacred one in the long history of Christianity; it was a name no Pope had ever dared to claim before; a name that resonated through the centuries with the possibility of starting from scratch, from the street and the gutter, from the leper colonies and the wildernesses.
That name was Francis.
In the light of the recent mid-term report and final summation of the recent Interim Synod of Roman Catholic cardinals and bishops at the Vatican, this prior assessment of the character of the most recent successor of the papal throne, Pope Francis, would seem to pretty astutely sum up the intrinsic nature of the Third World ‘Prince of the Church’ suddenly thrown into the world’s spotlight as the current Roman Catholic Leader.
With hindsight – from this summary by Andrew Sullivan – one can begin to discern the concern that might be felt by the conservatives of the Curia for what they perceive to be the unprecedented popularity of Pope Francis to the ordinary catholics whose lives are largely unaffected by strict observance of dogmatic pronunciations from the Vatican.
With the Pope’s disdain for the more fussy details of Vatican diplomacy – relinquishing his right to the traditional honorifics that go with the office, such as use of the papal apartment and other perquisites that his predecessor favoured during his sojourn at the Vatican – there has been a hint of unease on the part of Vatican officials, whose life-style generally has been attuned to the benefits of being part of the medieval court ethos that formerly, under previous Popes, was considered right and proper at Headquarters.
In line with his choice of the Franciscan title, in reference to the Little Poor Man of Assisi, Pope Francis has been careful to avoid any accusation of living a luxurious life-style – preferring, rather, to live in the Vatican guesthouse and to drive a more modest vehicle than the pope-mobile made famous by his two predecessors.
In keeping with all of this, Pope Francis has proved himself to be a ‘man of the people’, preferring to spend time with the poor of the Church rather than being preoccupied with the high and the mighty. It is probably this particular characteristic – in the spirit of his chosen paradigm, Saint Francis of Assisi, that Pope Francis seeks to ensure a new openness to people on the margins of the Church – a mission he sees as paramount.
Time alone will tell how far he will be allowed, by Vatican protocols and curial approval, to open up the Church to new initiatives that will broaden the Church’s appeal to the young people whose lives will be profoundly affected by the Church’s openness to their real needs in today’s world. May God richly bless his ministry in and to the world! And may his openness to sinners become a role model for Christians of all denominations.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand