Tomorrow will be the second anniversary of the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis. If, on the 12th of March 2013 you had told me the cardinals were set to elect a man who would revolutionize the Church in two years, I would have scoffed. Not anymore.
Revolutionize is a powerful verb. Some have questioned if it applies to Pope Francis, asking if the reforms are moving too slowly. To this, I ask: Compared to what? Compared to some idea we have in our heads about how quickly the reforms should proceed? It is hard to report on the resistance to the reforms Pope Francis is encountering, but all are agreed that it is strong, persistent and variable, by which I mean that some cardinals support the reforms in the finances of the Vatican but are horrified by the efforts to hold bishops accountable for covering up sex abuse, and some cardinals are opposed to both of those reforms but support some version of the “Kasper proposal” on communion for the divorced and remarried. But, on each and every front, he faces opposition from powerful cardinals and they are not called princes of the Church for nothing.
Nor can I think of any relevant historical analogies against which we can compare Pope Francis’ efforts at reform. Reforming the Roman curia is not like reforming a secular bureaucracy. The reforms after Vatican II were undertaken with a lot of wind at their back, and by a pope who knew every nook and cranny of the Vatican. The liturgical reforms of Pius X were quickly undertaken, but the papacy was at its most monarchical at that moment, and in the case of Pope Francis, part of the reform he intends is to get away from that monarchical mode.
Another concern I hear voiced is that Pope Francis’ reforms have been merely symbolic. I have always found it strange for a Roman Catholic to utter the phrase “merely symbolic.” Surely, we of all people should understand the power of symbols. But, the criticism also misunderstands the depth of the reform the Holy Father seeks. He could re-arrange the organizational flow chart in a week. But, if you seek a change of attitudes, that takes longer and it is more likely to be achieved by means of example. So, in trying to diminish the monarchical culture of the Vatican, the pope could make a pronouncement, form a study committee, or he could do things that set an example: carry his own luggage, pay his own hotel bill the day after the election, take the bus with the other cardinals. The pope’s efforts to reform the finances of the Vatican would look absurd if he lived a lavish lifestyle but, instead, his preference for simplicity demonstrates that the reform he seeks is not only, or even primarily, about meeting modern banking norms for transparency, but about living in a manner befitting one who preaches the Gospel. So, yes, many of his reforms to date have been symbolic and I am glad it is so. The symbols touch our hearts.
In asking people what t hey like about Pope Francis the two most common things I hear is that he is so human and so free. The common man is more astute than elites give her credit for. The man on the street can spot a person who is comfortable in his or her own skin and sniff out a phony a mile away. While I am sure Pope Benedict was authentic, he was also remote, and John Paul II never shed his actor’s sense of presence. With Papa Bergoglio, what you see is what you get and what you see is very accessible. It is a measure of how uptight the hierarchy tends to be that the average person finds it so remarkable that the pope is human.
The idea that Pope Francis is free gets to the heart of the reforms he intends. Think of what he told the synod: “Speak clearly. Let no one say, ‘This can't be said, they will think this or that about me.’ Everything we feel must be said with parrhesia [boldness].” Here the contrast with his two immediate predecessors is undeniable and deep. In the past thirty-five years there were issues that were deemed verboten, settled once and for all, as if the Lord’s Spirit had finished telling us everything we needed to know, and we had solved all the riddles of salvation, and the only task that remained was the task of politics. This is the attitude embodied in those like George Weigel who lionized John Paul II’s papacy and who have such obvious misgivings about Pope Francis. They are unnerved to see that Pope Francis says everything is on the table. For all the ink Catholic neo-cons have spilt on the topic of religious liberty, the fact is that they are terrified of freedom.
Yet, no one should be surprised by this papacy. As became obvious in the two most important biographies of Pope Francis to date, Elisabetta Pique’s Francis: Life and Revolution and Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer, the concerns he brings to the papacy have been with him a very long time. Take, for example, this quote from a 1980 essay by then-Father Bergoglio:
Restorationists and idealists, conservatives and revolutionaries will always be fighting to get power, get control, run the institution. The argument remains put in such a way that there are just two possible alternatives: our institutions have to be either restoration workshops or antiseptic laboratories. In the meantime, while we argue and waste time on these arguments, we do not see the real movement going on among God’s faithful people. It is with these people that effective power, wisdom, real problems, serious suffering, all move forward – and here, too, is the movement of salvation. Then, as always, the restorationist and idealistic ideologues, incapable of smelling the sweat of the real advance, will get left behind. They are cut off in their elitism and hold on to their tired, gray, cartoon-book narratives. Thus they fail to join the march of history where God is saving us, God is making us a body, an institution. God’s power enters history so as to make of human beings one single body.
That was 1980, but we have heard these themes again and again the past two years, in his address to the closing session of the synod most obviously, but also in his morning homilies.
The morning homilies. If Pope Francis had done nothing else, no reforms, no changing the culture of the synod, no personnel changes, absolutely nothing, but we could still have his daily homilies, I would count this among the most significant and blessed of pontificates. These gems of inspiration and insight confront all the spiritual ailments of our time and all the perennial maladies that accompany any religious body. And, it is really the homilies that stir up the opposition to him and I will pick up that theme tomorrow.