This week’s Catholic Universe Column – 4 August 2013
There has been much talk in the Catholic media this week of how Pope Francis’ visit to Rio for World Youth Day has de-toxified Catholicism; the witness of three million young people gathered together on Copacabana Beach will bust open the popular myth of an organisation that is out of touch with the young people, the world at large and consists of a bunch of evil hypocritical zealots who conspire to cover up child abuse.
It’s a testimony to the shallowness of today’s culture that Pope Francis is being heralded as a breath of fresh air, someone who will reinvigorate the Church, his papacy is being reported as a radical departure and yet he has said or done nothing that demonstrates any deviation from the Church doctrine that was so lucidly articulated by the Pope Emeritus. Francis is going down a storm, simply by virtue of the natural charisma that he possess in bucket-loads.
This is by no means a bad thing, although we Catholics are rather nonplussed at the rapturous reception our Holy Father is receiving in the press; the idea that the media might actually be willing to present Catholicism in a positive light is a novelty to say the least, however before we get too acclimatised to this new state of affairs, it’s worth remembering how human nature loves to build people up, before pulling the pedestal from beneath their feet. One of the joys of Pope Francis however, is that although he can see the wisdom of engaging with the press and does so in an impromptu and unscripted fashion, no doubt giving poor Fr Lombardi the Vatican’s press officer palpitations, he is also down to earth enough to not give two hoots for the fickleness of the world’s media. What we see with this Pope is what we get and Francis’ pronouncements are in great contrast to those of Pope Benedict, whose towering intellect meant that every public statement was carefully considered and full of theological nuance and depth.
That’s not to dismiss our former Pope whom, I hope history will remember with great affection, his was a gentle, thoughtful and cerebral papacy, it would take a lifetime to read and disseminate his great works of theology, the suggestions that he will one day be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church are well-founded, but Francis seems to have refreshed the parts that others failed to reach.
This week I found myself explaining the concept of indulgences on BBC radio in Northern Ireland and was incredulous to find myself defending the Church from accusations of cheapening itself by encouraging people to use social media in order to follow World Youth Day as part of the conditions of gaining a plenary indulgence. The presenter seemed to wish the Church to remain fusty and remote, as opposed to being actively involved in the activities of the world, which in this day and age, has to include the internet. “Tweet your way out of purgatory ?” spluttered the presenter indignantly. “If only” I thought, wistfully, my Twitter habit being one I wish I’d never acquired!
It is wholly appropriate that Pope Francis should encourage young people to use the internet to join their prayers with those of others around the world. This is, after all, what the Church actually is, not merely the Vatican City State, but actually the body of Christ, the family of believers from around the world. The granting of a plenary indulgence to those who joined in with World Youth Day on a spiritual level (subject to the usual conditions) was an ingenious and innovative notion. It was affirming the concept that the Church is one large global family of believers all praying for each other, the indulgence merely being the formal process in which the Church is showing that she is adding her powers to bind and loose, to invoke Christ and the Saints in order to speed her members passage to heaven.
The internet can be used to spiritually unite believers as never before and is used predominantly by the younger generations, it makes perfect sense to use it as a tool for the New Evangelisation. Speaking in his homily at the final Mass, Pope Francis reminded pilgrims of Christ’s commandment to make disciples of all nations. He urged the young, not to remain locked up in their lives or in small self-affirming communities, but instead to share their faith widely and passionately.
At a previous Mass he called upon the faithful to be bold, to be audacious. He has certainly proven that he possess those qualities in abundance, manifested right from the very beginning of his Papacy with his choice of name, a marked departure from previous tradition, but nonetheless entirely apt, a fusion of two great evangelisers, of the East and West, St Francis of Assisi and St Francis Xavier.
The visit has been overshadowed by the extraordinary extemporaneous press conference given on the flight back from Rio, in which Pope Francis reiterated Church teaching on homosexuality, reminding journalists that no-one should be marginalised on account of their sexuality and that the Church seeks an integrated society, one which fosters love for our brothers and sisters, rejecting the notions of ugly identity politics and factions competing for power.
While not a departure from doctrine, let alone the radical one being lauded by the press, it says a great deal that this has received such overwhelmingly positive coverage. If the church has been contaminated by the appalling clerical abuse scandal, the doctrine regarding sexual relationships is further grist to the mill. If Pope Francis has managed to find a way of reconnecting a cynical secular society to the intention of caritas that lies behind church teaching, then he has already in a few short months, rendered the soil fertile for future growth, opening minds to listen and hearts to receive.
In a world where the distinction between public and private is becoming increasingly blurred, thanks in part to the proliferation of social media, Pope Francis’ has managed to embrace the spirit of the age without succumbing to it. He is, in short, a permanent good news story. We had better get ready, the Catholic revival has begun!