We are more than two years into the papacy of Pope Francis. The entire nation is focused on his upcoming visit to the United States, which will begin exactly one month from Saturday. In DC, I can assure you, the begging and the shoving and the cajoling to get tickets to one of the papal events is unlike anything I have ever seen. So, it is a good time to discern what are the most important themes in this pontificate, what are the areas of continuity and discontinuity from previous pontificates, and where is Pope Francis leading the Church at this moment in time. Or put differently, who is this man who is coming to America next month?
Today, I kick off a series of columns that will set the table for the pope's visit. Today, I explore what I think is the over-arching theme of this pontificate, and tomorrow, I will examine how that one large theme plays out in six, smaller sub-themes. Friday, we will dig down on what we can expect specifically from his talks - and more than the talks, from the gestures - in the U.S. Next week I will examine how the pope challenges both the Catholic Left and the Catholic Right.
I discern one overarching theme to this pontificate, with several subheadings, and a second major theme that has not been much remarked upon. The overarching theme is this: The Church has become too self-referential and worldly, and this has crippled its ability to evangelize, to spread the Good News, to be the graced sacrament where people encounter the Risen Lord, leaving the Church sick or irrelevant or both, and the antidote is a Church of encounter, especially at the margins, after the model of Jesus. That, in one sentence, is the essence of this pontificate and he returns to this theme again and again. Just last month, in one of his morning sermons, the Holy Father recalled Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple and he said:
The people who went on a pilgrimage there to implore the blessing of our Lord, to make a sacrifice: Those people there were exploited! The priests were not teaching them to pray or giving them a catechesis… it was a den of thieves…. I don’t know… maybe we’d do well to reflect on whether we encounter similar things going on in some places. It’s using God’s things for our own profit.
Last December, in his annual address to the curia before Christmas, Pope Francis listed fifteen “ailments” of the curia, and fully half of the list was some variation on spiritual worldliness. First on his list was this:
Visit EarthBeat, NCR's new reporting project that explores the ways Catholics and other faith groups are taking action on the climate crisis.
The disease of thinking we are “immortal”, “immune” or downright “indispensable”, neglecting the need for regular check-ups. A Curia which is not self-critical, which does not keep up with things, which does not seek to be more fit, is a sick body. A simple visit to the cemetery might help us see the names of many people who thought they were immortal, immune and indispensable! It is the disease of the rich fool in the Gospel, who thought he would live forever (cf. Lk 12:13-21), but also of those who turn into lords and masters, and think of themselves as above others and not at their service. It is often an effect of the pathology of power, from a superiority complex, from a narcissism which passionately gazes at its own image and does not see the image of God on the face of others, especially the weakest and those most in need. The antidote to this plague is the grace of realizing that we are sinners and able to say heartily: “We are unworthy servants. We have only done what was our duty” (Lk 17:10).
Other items included “spiritual alzheimer’s” and “the disease of rivalry and vainglory,” something I am sure is unknown in the academy! I especially liked Item #3:
Then too there is the disease of mental and spiritual “petrification”. It is found in those who have a heart of stone, the “stiff-necked” (Acts 7:51-60), in those who in the course of time lose their interior serenity, alertness and daring, and hide under a pile of papers, turning into paper pushers and not men of God (cf. Heb 3:12). It is dangerous to lose the human sensitivity that enables us to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice! This is the disease of those who lose “the sentiments of Jesus” (cf. Phil 2:5-11), because as time goes on their hearts grow hard and become incapable of loving unconditionally the Father and our neighbour (cf. Mt 22:34-35). Being a Christian means “having the same sentiments that were in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5), sentiments of humility and unselfishness, of detachment and generosity.
This is potent stuff, and no pre-Christmas party with the curia at the Vatican had ever seen anything like it. His address at the close of last year’s synod on the family similarly detailed some of the negative attitudes he has discerned, or, as he put it, “moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations.” He noted the “hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – ‘traditionalists’ and also of the intellectuals.” He also warned against a different temptation: “The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the ‘do-gooders,’ of the fearful, and also of the so-called ‘progressives and liberals.’” This type of discernment of a synod, with the synod fathers sitting there, again, this was unheard of previously.
Further, this type of discernment shows why Pope Francis is mis-characterized when he is characterized as a creation of the Catholic Left. He is hostile to an ideological attempts to dictate how we Catholics understand the Gospel and live out the Christian faith. "Realities are more important than ideas," he wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, and he meant it. While it is true that one would not expect his two immediate predecessors to pen such a line, there is a deeper level at which Francis is in clear continuity with those predecessors on precisely this point. In Deus caritas est, Benedict XVI reminded the Church that our faith is not rooted in an idea but in an encounter. And the most cited text from the Second Vatican Council in St. John Paul II's many writings was Gaudium et Spes 22, taken almost verbatim fro DeLubac insistence that the Incarnation is an event, and not a theological category.
This criticism of a self-referential and worldly Church should not surprise anyone. From many accounts, we know that in the meetings of the cardinals in advance of the conclave, then-Cardinal Bergoglio delivered a short intervention that focused on the same theme. It must have struck a chord because the conclave then elected him pope. These were cardinals, in all their finery. Many of them had reached that pinnacle of ecclestiastical life precisely by learning the ins-and-outs of the self-referential, worldy curia. The election was not unanimous. But, while I wonder if any of the cardinals realized how quickly and how thoroughly Pope Francis would launch his agenda for change, it is what they voted for because the shortcomings of the previous thirty-five years were only too obvious. "After a fat pope, a thin pope," goes the Italian saying. The cardinals wanted change, and they got it, in spades.