Thursday, April 4, 2013

Pope Francis and the Winds of Change

Type into your Google search the words "Pope Francis breaks from tradition" and you'll discover a whole host of articles detailing the various "new" "innovations" that "break" "tradition" and "church law," chief among them his *gasp!* washing the feet of inmates/women/muslims at a local prison (because, if you're going to break tradition, go whole-hog, you know? Not just women, but muslims too!).

Ok. Stop hyperventalating, all of you-- on the right and on the left.

Without a doubt, Pope Francis has taken the world by storm and the media is enjoying the storyline-- the perennial storyline that sells: "Rogue so-and-so gives hard-boiled Church the what-for." It's the classic David vs. Goliath, 1980 USA vs Soviet Hockey, Main St. vs. Wall St; lukewarm laymen vs. big, bad Catholic Church storyline. The oddity to this storyline today is that the average guy is now the guy at the helm. Who knew that he could become Pope? Things like this just don't happen!

Just don't remind anyone about the storylilne leading up to President Obama's first Presidential election. "He's just like us! ... and he's erudite! Things like this just don't happen!"

Now, I don't want to rain on the media parade, nor on those that are really excited about Pope Francis. I'm happy for them. And I'm happy in general: we have a great Pope. And I mean that. And at the same time I recognize that there are many who are genuinely concerned about the Catholic Church and would like to see change-- whatever that change might be. I don't know the problems at the Vatican beyond what is reported on the media outlets. But I'm sure there are some; after all, do you know of an ecclesiastical office, local or otherwise, that can be described as a well-oiled machine? Nevertheless, I do have a healthy skepticism with regard to how media reports everything Vatican, while still hearing the pain and thoughts of those that believe something should be done. I just prefer a less reactionary approach in favor of a deliberate, prayerful method rooted in beseeching God's wisdom. That's just me.

So, while there is this wonderful feel-good story being spoon-fed to anyone who will take it, I do think that this storyline is inconsistent with reality. Yes, I think Pope Francis is not breaking from tradition, but doing exactly the opposite. 

(Shut your mouth!) I know.

Let's start from the beginning. In the beginning, Pope Francis is elected. He doesn't wear the finery; he doesn't give the big-arms-in-the-air greeting; he *gasp!* asks for everyone to pray for him. Does this constitute a break? I suppose, if I was superficial and If that was all that he did. But Pope Francis came out on the St. Peter's Basilica balcony, holding to tradition tightly in his hands. He wore the Papal white (tradition) being announced by the cardinals (tradition) in the way that popes are announced (tradition). He gave the salutary address (tradition), and in it he expressed his gratitude and respect for the previous Pope, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (tradition), and then gave the Papal Blessing (tradition)... in Latin (tradition). 

The next day, Pope Francis goes to the hotel and picks up his luggage and pays the bills. "Surely, that is a break from his predecessor!" .... Until we realize that Pope Benedict XVI did the exact same thing

"But, but..." I hear them say, "Pope Francis walks among the crowds." So did Pope Benedict. (I was there). 

"But, ... Pope Francis speaks about mercy and hope." Umm, did you not listen to Pope Benedict for the past eight years?

"Ok, but Pope Francis exhorts people to take care of the environment!" Yes, and Pope Benedict has a book on it.

Lest we forget: a mere ten days after being elected, Pope Francis visited Pope Emeritus Benedict and Francis urged Benedict to kneel next to him as he knelt, visibly displaying their unity. Pope Francis then started off his first Wednesday Audience, saying that he was "taking up the 'witness' from... Benedict XVI."

But let's return to that first day once more. On that first day, Pope Francis visited the graves of Martin Luther, Karl Marx, and other progressive voices the grave of Pope Pius V, who enforced the Council of Trent, reformed the Cistercians, and proclaimed the supremacy of the Holy See over temporal powers-- Pope Pius V who while battled hard against the Protestants and the Turks. (No tradition to see here, just keep moving along....)

Oh, come on, Father, Popes visiting the graves of past Popes has no real significance whatsoever!  Until you realize that Pope Benedict did the exact same thing, visiting the grave of Pope Celestine V-- the very same pope who was, until Pope Benedict, the last one to abdicate the papacy because of old age. Benedict did it twice, just in case we missed it the first time. That was obviously not significant.

I do find it interesting: what is it about Pope Benedict's abdication that was not a break in tradition? First time done in over 600 years, and we are focused on supposed breaks with tradition by Pope Francis? Ummm.... ?

Ok, so.... what else?

During the most Holy Week of the year, Pope Francis began his Palm Sunday homily reminiscing about the words of Pope Benedict, concluding the homily saying that he, Pope Francis, is “setting out on a journey… in the footsteps of Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI.” On Good Friday, Pope Francis referred again to Pope Benedict  in his homily. And now, just this week, Pope Francis announced that he is keeping the Year of Faith schedule that Pope Benedict had established.

So let's turn to the Holy Thursday washing of the feet of everyone-- and let's call it everyone-- not just "Francis washes the feet of women!" Let's call it for what it really was: he washed the feet of everyone. Men, Catholics, women, Muslims. All that was missing was an AIDS patient (whom he had washed in 2001).

Now, we are hearing that this was "the first time" for x, y, and z. But was it? Research the past and you will find that popes have not always washed the feet of those we expect them to wash. Pope Paul VI in 1974 washed the feet of 12 boys undergoing therapy for the effects of polio. Pope John Paul II, for the first six years of his pontificate, washed the feet of lay people. In 1980, for example, he washed the feet of elderly men, "including a group of homeless men living at a shelter run by the Missionaries of Charity... In 1983, he washed the feet of 12 young men from Italy's Boys Town, and in 1984, he washed 12 representatives of Rome parish youth groups."

But Pope Benedict XVI never did that, right? Wrong. In 2007, Pope Benedict went to the exact same prison that Pope Francis did-- Casal del Marmo-- meeting with the young detainees in the gym and celebrating Holy Mass there with them.

In this light, when I hear that Pope Francis washes the feet of women and Muslims, I am not shaken. Sure, I wondered why he was doing it. I wondered what it meant in light of the liturgical law that requires that it be men who have their feet washed. I wondered what it meant for the theological meaning of the Mandatum (the feet-washing rite): namely, that it is a symbolic ritual that recalls the institution of the priesthood and the mandatum-- mandate-- that the priests serve.

And then I got it: if we focus on the women aspect of this story, we miss the bigger aspect. And that comes when we couple this with the fact that Pope Francis washed the feet of Muslims. Both-- washing the feet of women and Muslims-- must be taken together in order to understand what Pope Francis is doing. He's not making a statement about women's ordination. If so, then we must also say that he is making a statement about Catholicism: namely, that it is just "as good" as Islam. But, in fact, by choosing those who are not even part of the Catholic faith-- namely, Muslims-- and are therefore not even eligible for ordination-- just like the women-- Pope Francis is highlighting the bigger aspect of the priesthood and the feet-washing rite: namely, that priests are servants to all.

Pope Francis IS keeping tradition by SHOWING that a priest is a servant who serves everyone. Now people ask: isn't Francis changing the symbolism of the Mandatum rite? I don't think so. First, we must recall that it is a new rite and an optional rite. Before this rite existed, the Institution of the Holy Priesthood was emphasized by the Gospel, the Homily, and the Eucharist in the Holy Thursday Mass. The WHOLE MASS focused on the Holy Priesthood. 

Sure, some would like Pope Francis to serve by being obedient to the liturgical law that demands that only men's feet be washed. But, Pope Francis is the Pope. He can highlight or even change liturgical law as he sees fit. But has he changed the law? No. Has he broken tradition? Actually, no. If one looks at liturgy and the life of charity as a unified whole, then no, Pope Francis has not broken tradition. In fact, I would argue that he has highlighted the priesthood even more-- if although he has made it more difficult to explain to parishioners why we are only washing the feet of men this Holy Thursday evening.

But the media would never highlight such continuity. Their focus is the rupture.

Hence, I am not surprised, but saddened, when I hear the headlines that "Pope Francis' foot-washing is the final straw for traditionalists." But I wonder aloud: how is this-- an optional rite added after the Second Vatican Council-- the final straw? He is not undermining the Sacred Priesthood. He is not undermining the Catholic Faith. Let's read this in context, after all: hadn't Pope Benedict extended such copious amounts of good will and reconciliation to traditionalists that not only were many traditionalists returning to the Church, but also that those laurels would still remain and thus survive one perceived disappointment? I mean, Benedict had everyone kneeling to receive communion, for heaven sakes! (Francis is doing the same, by the way). Yes, if traditionalists are leaving because of Francis' emphasis of the servitude found in the Mandatum and if they are leaving because of the media's narrative about it, not only are those traditionalists fickle and have bought into the media's narrative, but they were already gone-- or, at least, waiting for an excuse to leave. So much for "in good times and in bad."

And that's the thing. This isn't a bad time. Just wait until Pope Francis starts hitting the world between the eyes with hard talk that the liberal media will deplore and call divisive.

Remember the goal of the devil: to divide and conquer. Divide the pontificates of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. Call it a break from tradition. Split the Church. Then the devil can declare: Mission accomplished.

But the devil is scared. He knows who the pope is..... 

And that's why he's striking hard now with this "wind of change" "break with tradition" BS-- so that, when the world sees Pope Francis as he is, the Church will already be divided. Easier pickings, then.

As for me, I'm clinging to my papa.

1 comment: