It could be my misanthropic side or maybe I’ve just got a very short attention span or perhaps a combination of the two, means that I’m hoping that Francis fever will shortly subside, once the inauguration Mass has taken place.
That’s not to in any way question our new Holy Father, or throw any of his qualities into doubt, far from it, the Conclave played a blinder with that googlie (indulge me a little Bernard moment to mix my sporting metaphors here) but the constant focus upon Pope Francis, the style of his papacy and his personal gracious humility and simplicity, could I think, become counterproductive.
It’s marvellous that here we have a new Pope who has really got the media buzzing, proving that Catholicism is not as irrelevant as they would have us believe and that coverage has been incredibly positive, aside from one poorly researched attempted hatchet job from the usual suspect, the Guardian, but human nature loves nothing better than to build people up, if only to knock them down again, ably aided and abetted by the media.
My concern is that this important theme of poverty could swiftly start to become jaded and has the capacity to be caricatured and used as a weapon against the Holy Father, when and if, he does something wholly in keeping with his vocation, by a media who may not fully understand the implications of the office and responsibilities of the Vicar of Christ. Such as, for example, when he travels. Fr Ray Blake highlights an essential point, namely in order to be loyal sons and daughters of the Church we really need to get to grips with and actually understand what is meant by poverty. Anyone who thinks that the Vatican museums or Roman churches can or should be sold off to the highest bidder needs a reality check.
I cannot help but think that the very last thing Pope Francis wants is to be revered as some sort of living saint for the fact that he lives out the values of the Gospel and of his religious order. Whilst it’s entirely laudable that he does so, he is not the only priest or bishop to follow in the footsteps of Christ in this way. I know at least one UK diocesan bishop who drives about in an average non descript car, has very little in the way of personal staff and goes about with absolutely no pomp and ceremony whatsoever. A parish volunteer once related to me about how they once told a man that he couldn’t use a particular space in the church car park, because it was reserved for the bishop who was coming to do confirmations, whereupon the response was a fairly nonplussed, ‘I am actually the bishop’ much to the poor man’s mortification! He had been expecting a grand personage in a smart vehicle, not a low-key looking priest.
Pope Francis may well be on his way to sainthood, as are hopefully all of us, but he is not there yet and the very reason that he took us all by surprise is precisely because he had kept an extraordinarily low profile in the run-up to the conclave, he doesn’t do self-promotion and thus had fallen off everybody’s radar, including the most seasoned vaticanisti. This self-effacing man, whilst indicating that his papacy will be very different in style, does not want to be admired, far from it, but to lead us to Christ. The theme could wear thin very quickly not to mention backfire, if it is over-egged or swift conclusions drawn and I can’t help but wonder how soon we may see the satirists draw unkind Uriah Heep portraits. My mind drifted back to how Fluck and Law of Spitting Image portrayed Pope John Paull II, with a shudder.
Pope Benedict XVI was the one who laid the groundwork in terms of demystifying the papacy, not least by resigning it. His several books that were written in his own name, alongside his prolonged interview with Peter Seewald in Light of the World, in which he let people into his own personal reflections, showed, that in his words upon his election in 2005, that he was ‘a simple worker in the vinyard of the Lord’. Pope Francis seems to have the ability to breathe new life into the Church, he seems to be the right man at the right moment, he could do for the Papacy what Princess Diana did for the Royals, not forgetting that Diana’s charism with the poor and the sick was, however inadvertently, following in Christ’s footsteps, Francis is clearly able to speak from the heart, off the cuff, to rip up formal protocols and win hearts and minds for Christ, but he may not have been able to do so, if Benedict had not already shown the way. Pope Francis is very much what the church is aching for, but the likes of Cardinal Mahoney ought to remember that it was thanks to the Emeritus Pope, that this has been made possible. If we are to remember that the papacy is not a personality cult, then we also need to remember to keep some of our admiration and respect in proportion, before going overboard about a people’s pope. I think Pope Francis will do great things for us, but only if we give him the space, instead of projecting our own interpretation onto him.
As for the matters liturgical, I hate to rain on Rorate Caeli’s parade, but it seems to me, they are forgetting one vitally important point here, in that like everybody else, the Pope is a servant of the liturgy. I know liturgy matters, I’m not a traditionalist, but equally I appreciate the importance of the liturgy in orientating us towards Christ and subjugating our will to His. Liturgy is not about how we “feel” and what gives us the warm and fuzzies, but worshiping God as he has instructed us to do so , in a way that is noble, reverent, respectful, transcendent and mysterious. I guess I’m torn on this, because whilst appreciating the desire for a simpler style, there is a part of me that thinks, look, the Vatican has all these wonderful vestments in its various wardrobes, they aren’t going to sell them, go on, they might as well use the sparkly threads every once in a while. The whole thing is very hard to get right. One doesn’t want vestments that are just so ornate and dazzlingly beautiful that they detract from what’s going on in the Mass, equally we don’t want vomit inducing ’70s lairy florescent vulgar murals, neither does one want a priest that appears almost liturgically naked, his very simplicity being a statement and thus a distraction. The mystery and nobility needs to be retained, but I’m absolutely no expert, I’ve no idea how. It would clearly be a shame if Benedict’s reforms went by the wayside, his papacy was about making sure that the entire Church faced in the same direction, towards God (one of the reasons I’m all in favour of ad orientem) and Pope Francis will continue what Benedict did for the liturgy, in terms of prayer and action.
On the subject on nobility, though it’s as the result of a happy accident, I think we also do need to remember that the Pope is also the Head of State (albeit small), a role which enables the Holy See to achieve a vast amount in terms of international relations and behind-the-scenes negotiations and peace agreements so it is only right and proper that a certain respect is accorded to him in this office. Back to the unprepossessing bishops that I can think of, I think we need to remember that even though one may live simply and reflect this in dress or manner of transport, the dignity of office, the fact that a bishop, cardinal or Pope is one of Peter’s apostles, should never ever be forgotten. I know Anglicans who have often been flummoxed by this, forgetting that an appearance can often belie the office. One of the interesting contrasts I find between the Anglican and Catholic bishops I know, is that the Anglicans are all about the ecclesial purple and pectoral crosses and piping, the Catholic Bishops tend to be a lot more discreet in their dress, often leading to others perhaps treating them with inappropriate informality and yet Catholic bishops hold infinitely more power over their diocese than their Anglican counterparts. The commentators on Rorate Caeli need to remember exactly who they are talking about and the allegiance which is owed to him, Pope Francis has the keys of St Peter, the power to bind and lose.
None of this is to diss our new pontiff, but more to add a note of caution. Yes, we should be delighted that so far, the signs are looking promising, but Joseph Shaw has wise words on Papolatry and prudence. I can see attacks on the Church, on our new Holy Father really intensifying in the near future, from all quarters, including from within, as we have already seen. Whilst I take CS Lewis’ guidance to heart about the equal and opposite errors with regards to thinking about the devil, it seems to me that the reaction, the anger, whether that be from Rorate Caeli, the liberal press or hostile Anglicans, seems to flow from one cause. We have a great new Pope, who promises so much in terms of the New Evangelisation and the reinvigoration of the church. One who is going to re-sanctify the church and bring Christ to the world, especially the poor, sick, the needy, the elderly and the unborn in the twenty-first century. Not only that, technically we have TWO Popes, no matter how bizarre that seems. Not one pope, but two. One who will be actively leading us in prayer and holiness and another former pope, who will be storming the heavens on behalf of the church, with a life of prayer and penance. Think about that for a moment. I said in a previous post that we had two-for the-price of one in Pope Francis, with the merger of the Jesuit and Franciscan. Actually we have that in an actual physical sense, two popes together working for the church although in very different ways. One public and one private. They are even meeting privately next week, in order that Benedict may pass on some of his wisdom and experience to help Pope Francis in some of the difficult decisions. This is unprecedented stuff.
The power of two extraordinarily holy, deeply spiritual and wise men, leading the faithful in prayer. It can be no surprise that someone is angry, someone is furious, whenever great good happens, retaliation always occurs. Someone else has got Francis fever, which is why we need to all be on guard.
(Oh and as aside, to the critics who are claiming that the Church’s teaching on sexuality and priestly celibacy is misguided because it’s difficult but who are lauding the Pope’s zeal for the poor. The response to which is doing what is right, is not always the same as what is easy. I wonder what they would make of being informed that technically they should be giving at least 10% of their income away to charity. That’s not easy either, especially in these troubled times, but does that mean that it’s equally quite so misguided and wrong? If chastity and celibacy are wrong because they are allegedly difficult and challenging then why doesn’t giving a significant proportion of your income away, fall into the same category?)