Monday, March 18, 2013

A Few (Humble) Thoughts on Pope Francis

There has already been too much ink spilled analyzing the nascent pontificate of Pope Francis (And yes, I realize the irony that I'm adding to that ink. But, like everyone else, I think I have something valuable to contribute to the conversation).

So, first: I've noticed that the various perspectives fall into two camps.

On the one hand, there's the opinion that approaches Pope Francis with wide open arms. He is just what the Catholic Church needed. And the phrase that is thrown around quite frequently here is "He's humble." He's the people's Pope. He wades into large crowds [... like this guy-- and note the date] and greets everyone at the expense of his security detail; he has a history of sacrificially taking care of the poor and downtrodden, often at the expense of the trappings of high ecclesiastical office. As a Cardinal in Buenos Aires, it is often pointed out now, he took public transportation and lived in a small apartment where he took care of an elderly brother priest. As the Pope, he takes the bus instead of the limo, he dresses simply instead of donning the red shoes, cufflinks, and other traditional vestiture. He keeps at arm's length the visible finery that distinguishes him from the common man. For this camp, these actions are refreshing. To them, it is a sign that the Church does care for the everyman, that She does not wish to grow aloof from the world's problems, that there is a man in the Vatican who "gets it" and who has the integrity and intestinal fortitude to see that change-- how ever one might define that change-- will happen.

On the other hand, there's the opinion that approaches Pope Francis with caution. What was wrong with the finery? they ask. What was the matter with the way things were going? Should there not be an embrace of what has been traditionally done? This camp is a little worried. When Pope Francis talks about making the Church poor, they wonder: will such poverty result in a kind of iconoclasm that strips the Catholic Church of an evangelical power essential to its identity-- namely, beauty? Will the everyday replace the extraordinary? Will the common replace the sacred? They wonder whether Pope Francis' humility is misguided. That is: is it not also humble to submit oneself to the traditions that have come before, taking them on and allowing Christ to speak through them? Is that not true humility?

Whether you are in Camp Humility or Camp Cautious, I think it's safe to say that modern man, in his desire to know and understand first appearances that either jive or conflict with his worldview, ascribes a too-quick judgment and therefore misses out on the possibility of greater wisdom that could unfold over time.

But ok: Is there a change at the Vatican? Yes, his name is Pope Francis. And is he breaking with custom (and really it's custom more than tradition)? Yes, it seems as though he is. But, lest we forget: so did Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whose very name, now, evidences an innovation.

As with most things worth the wait, both camps are going to be surprised if they should wait and hold off judgment until the sheer passage of time allows for a greater sample set-- a sample which may, really, only be adequately taken years after any pontificate.

Certainly, those refreshed by Pope Francis' preference for the poor and his break with custom will be startled by his frank defense of traditional Catholic teaching to serve the poor. (Sorry Chris Matthews, but this Pope isn't going to overturn Humanae Vitae). The afterglow of the election of an everyman Pope will dissolve as reality will come into focus, namely that Pope Francis is a staunch supporter of Truth with a capital T. First impressions are critical here. And if the Pope's acts of humility have attracted many, maybe that attraction will have warmed a few hearts to receive the harder lessons to come.

For those who are cautious, I believe they will see in Francis a strong support and, as well, the suffering Servant of the Servants of God. I think Pope Francis is setting us up for the revelation of the beauty of the love that suffers: truly, caritas in veritate. Perhaps the customs and the finery don't allow the beauty of the crucified Christ to be seen by the modern heart. What if, stripped of his purple robes, the world sees Christ? Would that not be worth more than red shoes? Once again, first impressions are critical. And if it takes getting rid of the red shoes for now, then so be it. [But, for what it's worth, the red shoes are a sign of blood, not vanity...]

Stripped of glory for a time, I recall hearing in Paul's Letter to the Philippians, Christ so redeemed the world, bringing Her to a greater glory.

Certainly, Pope Benedict had once said, dovetailing off of Pope John Paul II's prediction that there would be a new springtime in the church, that such a springtime would require pruning. Many took that to mean a reduction in Church population. Perhaps, however, given the grave sins of the past century, the pruning will be, in a way, a becoming the poor Christ who by his stripes we are healed. Pope Francis has, as a cardinal, told his priests to wear penitential dress in reparation for past sins. Could his humility possibly be an expression of that desire? It seems quite possible. And those who are "more traditional" would find in this a refreshing air, I would think.

At any rate, I would not put it past Our Lord and His divine providence to provide us a with a Pope that calls us all to greater reflection-- and to do so in a penitential season as Lent. After all, Pope Benedict could have abdicated during Advent, Christmas, Easter, or Ordinary Time. He knew well in advance that he might abdicate (see his visits-- in the plural-- to the grave of Pope Celestine V, the pope who abdicated due to old age). So it would not surprise me one bit if, in his wisdom, Pope Benedict saw what lay ahead for the Church and thus abdicated in a such a way that the next Supreme Pontiff would begin his reign during the time of penance and reparation.

Time will tell if that is the period into which we are heading. For now, I recall the words of the first reading from the Fifth Sunday in Lent: "Behold, I am doing something new. Do you not perceive it?"

My heart, my mind, and my eyes are open, Lord.

Let us turn to the words of the Supreme Pontiff himself and read his words at the first homily he delivered at the first Holy Mass he offered as Pope. I do believe at this Mass, offered "For the Church" (Missa pro Ecclesia), Pope Francis begins to give us his outlook:

When we journey without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.

My wish is that all of us, after these days of grace, will have the courage, yes, the courage, to walk in the presence of the Lord, with the Lord’s Cross; to build the Church on the Lord’s blood which was poured out on the Cross; and to profess the one glory: Christ crucified. And in this way, the Church will go forward.

I echo the sentiments of another priest: "I'm excited by our new holy father, and if everything he does isn't exactly to my taste, well so what? I want to learn from him, learn how to be a better Catholic and learn how to be a better priest. Most of all, I hope he shows us the pressing needs of the world, and how much we need to proclaim the Gospel with our words and our works."

UPDATE: Another blogging priest has an excellent explanation of the Pope's papal motto ("Miserando atque  eligendo") here. The post is quite stunning, illuminates some things I have thought, and is well worth a read.