April 11, 2013

St. Francis and Pope Francis: To Teach By Gesture

Pope Francis & Dominic Goundreau *middot; AP file photo, 31 March 2013

Pope Fran­cis & Dominic Gondreau · AP file photo, 31 March 2013.



VER SINCE THE ELECTION of Pope Fran­cis, it has been bemus­ing to watch the reac­tion to the unusual style of his papacy, young though it is. Left-leaning com­men­ta­tors in the sec­u­lar press, many of whom pos­sess no clear, ratio­nal, or even sen­sate com­pre­hen­sion of the Catholic Church, seem fondly to imag­ine that Francis’s non-Ratzingerian style, and his advo­cacy for the poor, will lead to a New Lib­eral Utopia for the Church.



IN THE DAILY SCREECH, which I cite as but one exam­ple, A.N. Wil­son (author of a decon­struc­tion­ist biog­ra­phy of Jesus) vainly spec­u­lates that the “golden oppor­tu­nity for change,” the “relief,” brought about by a “new man,” might even mean the even­tual renun­ci­a­tion of papal infal­li­bil­ity. Mr. Wil­son admits that to put such a hope into print would be “cheeky”; but where would the author of Jesus: A Life be were it not for cheek? The only evi­dence Wil­son has to go on in putting this mad fan­ta­sia of his into print is that Bergoglio is not Ratzinger. Of course, an intel­li­gent flea might have pointed that out. But here’s the key pas­sage in Mr. Wilson’s loopy article:

Pope Fran­cis is highly tra­di­tional in his inter­pre­ta­tion of the church’s teach­ing on such mat­ters as gay mar­riage, women priests, and abor­tion. But he is also rad­i­cal enough to believe that these mat­ters, much as they occupy the minds of head­line writ­ers in the news­pa­pers, are not the essence of the Chris­t­ian Gospel. Christ lived among the poor, he was him­self a poor man, and he told his dis­ci­ples that inso­far as they had fed the hun­gry, clothed the naked, vis­ited the pris­on­ers, they had done it to him, the Incar­nate God. This is the Christ wor­shipped and served by the new pope.

Call­ing the push for gay mar­riage “a machi­na­tion of the father of lies” is hardly the kind of thing you’d say if you thought it was inessential

Some­one might kindly point out to Mr. Wil­son, in the way you would point out things to a small child, that this is also the Christ who was wor­shipped and served by the for­mer pope. And regard­less of whether one thinks that the issues of gay mar­riage, women priests, and abor­tion are the “essence” of the Gospel, they are hardly neg­li­gi­ble either. Pope Fran­cis, in fact, called the push for gay mar­riage “a machi­na­tion of the father of lies”—hardly the kind of thing you’d say if you thought the topic was inessential.

More­over Fran­cis, much as he has spo­ken, in the early days of his pon­tif­i­cate, about our oblig­a­tion to the poor, has also spo­ken quite fre­quently about war­fare against Satan. And while Christ said, “What­ever you did to the least of these you did to me” (Matt. 25:45), he also defined mar­riage in the con­text of God cre­at­ing us male and female (Mark 10:6), and he said that it were bet­ter for a mill­stone to be tied around your neck than that you would harm a child (Luke 17:2). Is A.N. Wil­son the one to decide which of Christ’s words are essen­tial to the Gospel, and which are inessen­tial? I cer­tainly don’t recall Pope Fran­cis mak­ing any dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of the kind.



MEANWHILE, AS THE LIBERALS have been glee­fully attempt­ing to mis­read Pope Fran­cis as being one of them­selves, some (I empha­size some) tra­di­tion­ally– and liturgically-minded con­ser­v­a­tives in the Church are attempt­ing to mis­read Fran­cis as though he were the very embod­i­ment of mod­ernism and the “Spirit of Vat­i­can II[1]. Not one day into Francis’s pon­tif­i­cate, some blog­gers were sound­ing the alarm that the pope, when he was Car­di­nal Bergoglio, had attempted to sup­press Sum­mo­rum Pon­tif­i­cum, Bene­dict XVI’s motu pro­prio allow­ing the Latin Mass to be said with­out prior per­mis­sion. Such was the con­cern about this that Fr. Tim Fini­gan at The Hermeneu­tic of Con­ti­nu­itya blog no one would con­fuse as a bas­tion of Novus Ordo mod­ernism—took the time to doc­u­ment the exis­tence of the usus antiquior in Buenos Aires. For what­ever rea­son, that did not stop the did-he-or-didn’t-he back-and-forth within the Catholic blogosphere.

The red papal shoes and the mozzetta are not “bling”; the pope is under­stood to walk in the blood of the martyrs

The tra­di­tion­al­ist panic attacks and angst (sic tran­sit glo­ria mundi) have also been fed by hor­ror over the pope’s toned-down, Novus Ordo litur­gies (ad pop­u­lum), his deci­sion to do with­out the tra­di­tional red shoes and mozzetta [2], and his deci­sion to wash the feet of a few Mus­lim women on Holy Thurs­day [3]. Cer­tainly I sym­pa­thize with the unease of many. Papal accou­trements such as the red shoes and the mozzetta are not bling; they have impor­tant sym­bolic mean­ings. The pope wears red shoes because red is the color of blood; the pope walks in the blood of the mar­tyrs, ready to face mar­tyr­dom him­self for the faith if required. They are not about the man but about the papacy. To para­phrase C.S. Lewis, you don’t put on the red shoes because you’re haughty but because you’re hum­ble and obe­di­ent to the divinely-established Chair of Peter [4]. Bene­dict XVI under­stood that; and it is right to not want the papacy dimin­ished at a time when it is so poorly under­stood and respected as it is.



HOWEVER, I ALSO BELIEVE that many of these fears—judging by how they have man­i­fested them­selves rhetorically—are mis­placed; and I would urge my fel­low blog­gers to exam­ine their con­science and put greater trust in the wis­dom, guid­ance, and pro­tec­tion of the Holy Spirit. God knows what He is doing. And even through—perhaps espe­cially through—some of our dis­ap­point­ments and per­plex­i­ties, we need to con­sent to be taught.

Pope Fran­cis is not going to sup­press Sum­mo­rum Pon­tif­i­cum or cel­e­brate clown Masses

I would be greatly astonied if Fran­cis sup­pressed Sum­mo­rum Pon­tif­i­cum. Some seem to live in mor­tal fear of this. I would be astonied too if he inter­fered with the abil­ity of those who so desire it to have the Tri­den­tine Mass, or high and solemn litur­gies. Yes, it is true, the pope teaches by exam­ple and ges­ture, and the pope’s infor­mal­ity and jet­ti­son­ing of litur­gi­cal rubrics sends uncer­tain signals.

But there are not going to be any clown Masses or pan­tomimes, and there’s a prob­lem when the inten­sity of our dis­cus­sion about these mat­ters gets out of hand and leads to unchar­ity and lack of faith in the pope and the Holy Spirit. One blog­ger I read went so far as to accuse the pope of divid­ing Catholics against each other; another very unchar­i­ta­bly (and sin­fully) pointed out that that Pope Fran­cis, being 76, might not be around for that long any­way. It is rhetoric like this that led Patheos blog­ger Kat­rina Fer­nan­dez, who admits she’s been hav­ing a tough time with the tran­si­tion, to sternly call for a cease fire:

I’ve had to give up read­ing some of my most favorite blogs. The stink of the novu­sor­doist dis­ease is every­where and there’s nowhere to go? Pope Fran­cis is destroy­ing the Church? The very idea exudes a heart­break­ing lack of hope and Catholics are any­thing but hope­less. Please, stop it. Every­one. Just stop. The spir­i­tual harm you are caus­ing is far greater than any­thing Pope Fran­cis has done thus far in his short time as pope. … I love you all, pas­sion­ate lovers of the Church, but for the love of all that’s holy shut it.

Tra­di­tion­al­ists too must con­sent to be taught

It is impor­tant to under­stand that not every­one who has writ­ten on these top­ics, or expressed lov­ing con­cerns, is guilty of the “spir­i­tual harm” that the blessed and pas­sion­ate Ms. Fer­nan­dez calls out. Not all tra­di­tion­al­ists have harshly and unchar­i­ta­bly judged the pope too early in his pon­tif­i­cate. Not all have failed to look for the good that the Holy Spirit has in mind for the Church, or failed to trust in the divine prov­i­dence promised in Matthew 16:18. Not every­one is seek­ing to sow the seeds of doubt in the pope. But—and I have no incli­na­tion to name names or blogs—enough are guilty of it that Ms. Fer­nan­dez and Tay­lor Mar­shall have seen the need to call it out. Catholic tra­di­tion­al­ists, your love of the Church is with­out ques­tion, and I would ask that you exam­ine your con­science on this mat­ter, and that you would con­sent to be taught by the Holy Spirit act­ing through the vicar of Christ. Give Fran­cis the ben­e­fit of what­ever doubts or con­cerns you may have.




HICH BRINGS ME TO the real point of this post; namely, what I con­sider to be the best way of under­stand­ing the young papacy of Pope Fran­cis. I have been think­ing of this for some time in rela­tion to Car­di­nal Bergoglio hav­ing gone to St. Fran­cis of Assisi for a papal name. Most of the dis­cus­sion of this that I have heard has cen­tered either on their mutual devo­tion to the poor; or, in con­sid­er­a­tion of the thor­ough cur­ial reform that is needed, on St. Francis’s hav­ing heard Christ say to him, “Rebuild my Church.” And while both of these con­nec­tions cer­tainly have a truth to them, there is another con­nec­tion that has been less-often men­tioned. It is these words, often attrib­uted to St. Fran­cis: “Preach the Gospel at all times; if nec­es­sary, use words.” That, I would say, is the key to under­stand­ing both what Pope Fran­cis has been doing thus far, and the real gift he is bring­ing to the Church.

Jose de Ribera, "St. Francis of Assisi," 1642

Jose de Rib­era, “St. Fran­cis of Assisi,” 1642


I cer­tainly do not want to dimin­ish any one of the words that the pope has said. And Catholic blog­gers will need to be vig­i­lant in point­ing them out—both to delu­sional, day­dream­ing lib­er­als who fancy that the time for heresy is nigh; and to anx­ious, pho­bic tra­di­tion­al­ists, who dread that the time for con­se­crat­ing Pepsi is nigh. The pope’s repeated talk of spir­i­tual war­fare is very impor­tant, and words like these should be a sig­nal of warn­ing to lib­er­als and reas­sur­ance to traditionalists:

There has been, through­out the his­tory of the peo­ple, this temp­ta­tion: to chop off a piece of the Faith. … But when we start to cut down the Faith, to nego­ti­ate the Faith, a lit­tle like sell­ing it to the high­est bid­der, we take the path of apos­tasy, of dis­loy­alty to the Lord. [5]

Words like these prove that Fran­cis is not going to change the teach­ing of the Church. As the Holy Spirit promised it would be. His devo­tion to ortho­doxy is solid and strong, as is his will­ing­ness to speak it; lib­er­als should be be wary and tra­di­tion­al­ists should be com­forted. But I think the essence of what the pope is giv­ing to the Church, and what the Holy Spirit has deter­mined that the Church needs right now, is of a dif­fer­ent nature. Fr. Z, call­ing Fran­cis the “real deal,” spec­u­lates that this may be “more of a pray­ing pon­tif­i­cate than a teach­ing pon­tif­i­cate.” But there are more ways to have a “teach­ing pon­tif­i­cate” than by writ­ing encycli­cals and books.

To turn hatred into love: Pope Fran­cis shows us what the Gospel looks like

By no means am I attempt­ing to dimin­ish the the­ol­ogy and the writ­ing of John Paul II or Bene­dict XVI. I love their writ­ing immensely; I believe they are both des­tined to be made Doc­tors of the Church; and what they have taught us will be with the Church always and should be stud­ied and pon­dered by all. But—and I am using this as pos­si­bly the most beau­ti­ful example—who can for­get the now-famous pic­ture of the pope embrac­ing Dominic Gondreau, a child with cere­bral palsy? Drudge had the most won­der­ful cap­tion I can think of for that pic­ture: “To turn hatred into love.” Fran­cis was, like his name­sake, preach­ing the Gospel with­out the need for words. That papal embrace was Evan­gelium Vitae with­out the encyclical.

Here’s the point: We live in a visual cul­ture more than we do a print cul­ture. I am not entirely com­fort­able with that. But when we con­sider how souls are to be reached, isn’t the point of the episode in Acts of “talk­ing in tongues” that we are to reach peo­ple through the lan­guage they hap­pen to speak? John Paul II and Bene­dict XVI used their “teach­ing pon­tif­i­cates” to explain and elu­ci­date what the Church teaches. Fran­cis is show­ing us what that looks like. Already there are indi­ca­tions that Fran­cis is induc­ing lapsed Catholics to return to the Church—not by nego­ti­at­ing away the faith, not by insti­tut­ing clown masses, but by show­ing us what the Gospel looks like. We need to see the Gospel. That is what Pope Fran­cis is about.

And if that is what the Holy Spirit has deter­mined that the Church needs right now, who are any of us to ques­tion the Holy Spirit? So let us con­sent to be taught.



[1] Because I greatly admire and respect my fel­low Catholic blog­gers, and sym­pa­thize at least with the root—if not the manifestation—of many of their con­cerns, I am not going to “call them out” by name and link to them here. Read­ers who are inter­ested should eas­ily be able to find arti­cles of the kind I men­tion via their search engines.

[2] Eliz­a­beth Scalia had to call bull­shit on one vicious rumor about Francis’s refusal of the mozzetta, which some in the Catholic blo­gos­phere had been giv­ing cre­dence to. Vat­i­can Insider con­firmed that the rumor was what Ms. Scalia said.

[3] To tell the truth, after some ini­tial uncer­tainty and impulse to say “Who cares?” I have come to agree with those who were dis­ap­pointed and have crit­i­cized the foot-washing inci­dent. I am of the opin­ion that—at least with respect to Holy Thursday—the point of the rite is a cel­e­bra­tion of Christ’s insti­tu­tion of the Priest­hood, and that it should there­fore be reserved for priests and dea­cons. Jimmy Akin, although walk­ing a fine line, has a dif­fer­ent point of view. Fr. Z, the whole of whose com­men­tary on Fran­cis has been spot-on, has writ­ten sev­eral valu­able posts on the foot-washing inci­dent (here, here, here, and, very inter­est­ingly, here). Canon­ist Ed Peters also opines here.

[4] Here is the full quo­ta­tion from Lewis’s Pref­ace to Par­adise Lost: “A cel­e­brant approach­ing the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a min­uet, a gen­eral offi­cer on a cer­e­mo­nial parade, a major-domo pre­ced­ing the boar’s head at a Christ­mas feast—all these wear unusual clothes and move with cal­cu­lated dig­nity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obe­di­ent; they are obey­ing the [cus­tom] which pre­sides over every solem­nity. The mod­ern habit of doing cer­e­mo­nial things uncer­e­mo­ni­ously is no proof of humil­ity; rather it proves the offender’s inabil­ity to for­get him­self in the rite, and his readi­ness to spoil for every one else the proper plea­sure of ritual.”

[5] For more on this, see Fr. Z’s arti­cle here.