For the two of you who were worried, I’m still here, just temporarily slowed by studying, final exams, and a retreat at an Austrian Cistercian monastery. I’m supposed to be over here studying, remember? This post, however, is not about me. Rather, there have been some questions, some serious and some not-so-serious, regarding one of my “neighbors” who goes by Pope Francis and what exactly is “going on over there.”
First, I’d like to share two stories. The first story comes from an episode shortly before Christmas. The North American College (NAC), with whom we at the Casa Santa Maria, are connected, recently built a new wing with dorms, classrooms, a chapel for prayer, and some other “utility space.” In preparation for the dedication of the new building, the rector of the NAC was able to get a private audience with His Holiness to have him bless a brick for the structure. It wasn’t, however, a mere formality, but rather a 45-minute meeting with the Holy Father, the rector, and another priest from the NAC. In the midst of the conversation, the priests of the Casa were discussed, and among numerous things, the Holy Father spoke about such “shocking” things as daily prayer, Mass and Eucharistic adoration, communal life and care for the poor. His concluding words were to ask us to “pray for me” and “Tell them to never let themselves be drawn away from Mary.” In the midst of these simple, yet powerful words – meat and potatoes, as we might say – from “Papa”, the rector relayed this message: “He asked that you listen to him and his teachings, and not what others say about him, or say he said.”
The second story comes from Christmas Eve. As I may have mentioned, we had the opportunity to concelebrate the “Midnight” Mass with the Holy Father. As we were standing in the side corridor of St. Peter’s that leads into the Sistine Chapel, there was a double excitement in the air due to the immanent celebration of the Lord’s Nativity and the opportunity to do so with the Holy Father. One of the Papal Master of Ceremonies, however, asked us priests not to use our cameras during the celebration of the Mass, and he added that this was a personal request from the Holy Father to us. The reason: it would give a bad example to the faithful and it would detract from the sacred nature of this moment. Two months later, I still remember that instruction and the fact that it gave me reason to pause and even not to use my phone to take pictures during Mass, in spite of the temptations to do so.
These took place in the midst of a number of “questionable” reports about the Holy Father’s words, including an alleged encounter in St. Peter’s square wherein Pope Francis proclaimed that all dogs go to heaven, and another misinterpreted comment about Catholic families not having to multiply like rabbits. As some have already pointed out in far clearer and more eloquent ways than I could, there seem to be two popes running around, and I’m not talking about Pope Francis and Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI. Rather, there’s the Pope Francis that the media has created based on their ideological hopes and dreams for Catholicism, and then there’s the real Pope Francis. Unfortunately, the “made-up” Pope Francis, for obvious reasons, is plastered all over the media far more than the real Pope Francis.
I will readily admit that there is something rather radical about Pope Francis’ approach, in the most basic sense of that word. As you Latin geeks out there know, the word “radical” comes from the Latin “radix” which simply means “root.” Thus, what I mean to say is that Pope Francis is going back to the roots, namely, Jesus Christ in the Gospels. After all, what do you expect from someone coming from the Society of Jesus? Secondly, he took the name “Francis”, and for those who know St. Francis’ understanding of his own vocation, it’s nothing more than living the rule of life which Jesus Christ, God-in-the-flesh, gave to us in the Gospels. Thus, Pope Francis is radical, but that doesn’t mean he’s changing everything. In fact, he’s doing the exact opposite. He’s simply calling us to a more faithful living out of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as understood by the Catholic Church. In this there is a newness and a freshness to Pope Francis’ approach, but certainly not a rupture with the immediate or remote past. In the words of St. Augustine, God is the Beauty which is “ever ancient, ever new.” Likewise, the Church, as God’s creation, while being the same Church for 2,000 years, is constantly alive with a newness flowing from her Divine Head.
I am not willing, however, to go much deeper than that in “interpreting” what Pope Francis is up to for several reasons. First, in a recent discussion with a Cardinal to which the priests of the Casa Santa Maria were privy, this Cardinal pointed out the continuity among the recent Holy Fathers as well as a certain level of uniqueness in Pope Francis which this Cardinal confessed: “I’m still trying to figure out.” If the Cardinals are still working it out, this lowly priest isn’t going to get there soon.
Secondly, there’s a notion of mystery here, again in the Christian understanding of the word “mystery.” Mystery, as understood by the Church, is something which is partly explainable by human means, but partly inexplicable because it surpasses human explanation, without contradicting human reason. Thus, there’s a mystery to the position of the Holy Father; he is in this world and yet not. Furthermore, there’s the mystery of the human conscience, which others do not have the right to judge. This is the Catholic notion of “not judging others.” Certainly, he’s not doing anything objectively evil; he is, however, making decisions based on LOTS of knowledge which most of us will never know. Since I obviously cannot know all the information which is available to him, how can I be certain that he’s making a bad decision? Mine is not to criticize; mine is to trust and pray for the Holy Father.
Finally, there’s the Holy Spirit, Who always has to be accounted for. Look at the prophets of the Old Testament; certainly they are sometimes viewed as crazy, yet they are clearly speaking on God’s behalf though the people of their day did not understand or accept it.
Jesus Christ, 2,000 years ago, promised St. Peter that the “gates of the netherworld shall not prevail” against the Church of Christ founded on the rock that is St. Peter. Our modern world runs on immediate explanations and answers, and if we don’t have an answer, we make one up until some other information is provided that might cause us to make up another answer which may or may not be true. That’s not how God works, and so it’s not how the Church works. St. Paul speaks of an “obedience of faith” (Romans1:5) by which we adhere to God and His Works; faith doesn’t always have “conclusive” evidence, but faith gives confidence because of the One who has spoken to us.
In the words of St. Padre Pio: pray, hope, and don’t worry. And, if you need something to get you started, try this:
Lord, source of eternal life and truth, give to your shepherd, N., a spirit of courage and right judgment, a spirit of knowledge and love. By governing with fidelity those entrusted to his care, may he, as successor of the Apostle Peter and Vicar of Christ, build your Church into a sacrament of unity, love, and peace for all the world.