Pope Francis is Coming! Part II

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I began a series of posts looking forward to the Holy Father’s visit to the U.S. which begins a month from Saturday. I began by looking at what it the overarching theme of the pontificate- the Church had become self-referential and worldly. Today I will argue that this one overarching theme leads to six sub-themes, three of which have to do with ideas and attitudes and three which have to do with action and method. Then, I shall conclude with an add-on overarching theme that seemed appropriate to handle on its own.

The first sub-theme is that mercy and joy are at the heart of the Gospel we Catholics are called to proclaim. The Gospel is a Gospel of mercy and it should be announced with joy. We know that in the conclave, Cardinal Bergoglio read Cardinal Kasper’s book entitled “Mercy.” It took. He asks the question of the Church: Where is God’s mercy in all we do? It is an easy question to overlook and +Kasper’s book makes clear that for too long, that is exactly what the western Church has done, overlook it. This belief that mercy is at the heart of the Gospel, indeed you could say it is the Gospel, helps explain much about Pope Francis’ obvious freedom: He knows that when you read the Gospels, it is obvious that the opposition to Jesus only emerged when he preached God’s mercy. That opposition did not deter Jesus and it will not deter Francis.

Joy seems to come naturally to Pope Francis, but in fact it comes supernaturally. His infectious faith is itself the key to “the Francis Effect.” People are drawn to him because he is so joyful, and that joy evidences a deep and abiding faith in the Lord’s providence.  Faith, for Francis, is not accomplished with any kind of checklist spirituality, do these seven things every day and you will become a saint. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis warned against “self-absorbed, Promethean neo-pelagianism,” which is a mouthful, but a precise mouthful. I cannot think of a more apt description for the kind of smug Catholic identity that I would associate with groups like the American Life League, several shows on EWTN and, a favorite here I am sure, the Cardinal Newman Society. Or, to take a more precise hierarchic example, a friend sent me a link to an article in The Tablet about Cardinal Raymond Burke speaking at Oxford in the wake of the Irish referendum approving same sex marriage. The cardinal denounced the vote saying that even the pagans would not have done such a thing. There was an accompanying photograph of a stern-looking cardinal in a three foot tall, Pius XII-style miter. My friend suggested the caption: “The Joy of the Gospel.”

The second sub-theme is Francis’ commitment to the poor. The day of his election, I got a call from a producer at PBS’s “Newshour” asking me to come on and speak about the new pope. I knew very little about him. In the car ride over to the studio, I got a hold of a Latin American priest and asked him what he knew about the pope. He told me, “I think the most important thing to know is that +Bergoglio is from Latin America and, since the Council, the Latin American bishops have never stopped asking the question, what does it mean to exercise a preferential option for the poor?” We know that some of our conservative friends stated in those first few days that because +Bergoglio was not enamored of some strands of liberation theology, he was probably a card carrying capitalist like them. Alas, there are other options.

Francis is not, however, a social worker. As we learned from Austen Ivereigh’s biography, he was never very popular with the Jesuits who viewed the world through the lens of the social sciences. He takes seriously the need to meet the material needs of the poor and does not get easily distracted by conservative chatter about spiritual poverty, which is an issue, but it is a different issue, and the conflation of the two reaches acute ugliness when material prosperity is equated with moral superiority, as happens too often in our country. For Francis, our Christian vocation to the poor is, to quote the hymn, “in strict obedience to the Lord.” It is about following the path of the Master. And, this is because it is not so much the case that we evangelize the poor as that we are evangelized by the poor. It is those who are poor whose reliance on the Lord is total and trusting. Christianity, as Francis understands and practices it, does not sit well with the sensibilities of the upper middle class.  The encounter with the poor is where we meet the Lord, the same Lord before whom we genuflect when we pass in front of the tabernacle. There are not two Christs but one, and Francis wants us to understand that if we do not recognize Jesus in the poor, we will never recognize Him in the sacrament of the altar.

The third sub-theme is borrowed from Pope Paul VI, who is clearly Francis’ favorite recent pope – and mine too! In Evangelii Nuntiandi, Paul wrote, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” In this regard, modern man seems a lot like first century Romans and Greeks. It is this conviction that the world must see Christians as authentic witnesses, as people who practice what they preach, that often becomes a theme in his morning homilies and it is his own authenticity that largely explains Francis’ attraction for young people. But, there is more here. The witness is not the principal of the story, and Francis wants us to remember that religion is about God and only consequently, and derivatively, about us – another evidence of his hostility to neo-pelagianism. As well, the witness is someone who is in the world, not holed up as a recluse, confining his attachments to the morally pristine. The culture of encounter is the place where the witness is needed and effective, not in any imagined culture of the elect. Francis is not shy about comparing the most arch practitioners of advanced clericalism to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

The three more methodological sub-themes of this pontificate are just as important in their way as these first three more attitudinal sub-themes, and while they do not exactly overlap, both sets are entirely consistent with each other.

First, Pope Francis believes that process matters. This is not a conviction that he learned from management theory. Francis believes that when churchmen are too committed to a pre-conceived outcome, when the agenda is too top-down or too explicit or too hidebound, there is no room for the Holy Spirit. So, in last year’s synod, he allowed far more freedom and open exchanges than we had witnessed before, precisely because the pope encouraged such open and candid exchanges. At the end of each day, there was open mike time, an innovation introduced by Pope Benedict, during which anyone could come before the assembly and speak on any issue. Karaoke was apparently not permitted. Francis could have easily put the kibosh on the book by several conservative theologians, including five cardinals, and he did not. His habit of picking up the phone and just calling people, including curial cardinals, has left many unsettled, but he finds the direct exchange of ideas helpful to him as he makes the many decisions he needs to make. People tend to project upon him their own agendas, but I think one of the key insights of Elisabetta Pique’s biography is that throughout his career, he has allowed situations and processes to ripen, to give himself and the communities he serves time to discern what the Spirit is calling for in a given situation, to be even a little suspicious of one’s own inclinations and to show no partiality to doing things a certain way because that is how they have always been done.

Second, and relatedly, the pope wants less power in the curia and wants the curia to understand its power in terms of service not overlordship. I will speak more to the reforms of the curia in a minute, but for now, I would only note that this reform is essential even if it is, for lack of a better term, self-referential unless it is seen as consistent with these other key themes. Pope Francis is not pursuing reform of the curia for its own sake, but because the culture of the curia had stifled the Spirit, encouraged spiritual worldiness, and at a most basic level, failed the Church. His decision to create a kind of kitchen cabinet of cardinals, drawn from non-curial ranks, to assist him with the overall governance of the Church, shows his determination to seek guidance from beyond the walls of the Vatican.

The third methodological sub-heading is the most obvious: Pope Francis understands the power of gesture. We saw this immediately, when he came on to the loggia after his election dressed in a simple cassock, led the crowd in prayers even a child would know, and then asked the assembled throng to pray for him before he imparted his blessing. We saw an even more determined sign of his belief in the power of gesture the next week when he decided to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper not in his cathedral of St. John Lateran, but in a prison. The tickets for that Mass had been distributed. You can imagine the pushback he got. Yet, he was unmoved. We sat it again that first week when he went to say Mass at the Church of Santa Anna, the parish church of the Vatican, and he stood outside after Mass and greeted the congregants like any parish priest would do.

Pope Francis’s morning homilies are themselves a powerful gesture, modeling for the clergy worldwide how he reflects upon the Word of God. I am sure the good Holy Cross fathers always deliver superlative sermons, but at the parish I attend, I wish we had someone capable of delivering the kind of sermons Pope Francis delivers on a daily basis. They are gems and while I confess I miss the density of a Pope Benedict sermon, Francis’s sermons are so accessible and so direct, so challenging, and challenging for everyone. Anyone who tries and contrast him unfavorably with his predecessors in terms of intellectual and spiritual heft is not really listening. This is a man who has prayed long and hard over the words of the Sacred Scripture.

I mentioned that there was one other overarching theme that I think affects all that I have mentioned so far but which has not been sufficiently noted in analyses of this pontificate. In May, George Weigel gave a talk at the Acton Institute about Pope Francis. It was actually better than I thought. One of the items on his list of things we should realize about Francis was the fact that he is an old-style Jesuit. This is very true. But, Weigel failed to note the most important consequence of that fact: Old Jesuits fight Jansenists, those crypto-Calvinists who insisted on a rigorous moral life as evidence of divine election.   

The struggle between the Jansenists and the Jesuits was multi-faceted and complex. Essentially, the Jansenists thought the Jesuits morally lax and the Jesuits thought the Jansenists were latter day Pharisees. Jansenism was a response to the Jesuit charism of bringing consolation to souls, which took on its most famous theological expression in probabilism. But, before probabilism, with its many difficulties, took root, the first generation of Jesuits understood their ministry to be shaped, in all its forms, by the need to bring consolation to a hurting world. Consider these words of Loyola’s companion Peter Faber:

With great devotion and new depth of feeling, I also hoped and begged for this, that it finally be given to me to be  the servant and minister of Christ the consoler, the minister of Christ the helper, the minister of Christ the redeemer, the minister of Christ the healer, the liberator, the enricher, the stengthener. Thus it would happen that even I might be able through him to help many – to console, liberate, and give them courage; to bring to them light not only for their spirit, but also (if one may presume in the Lord) for their bodies, and bring as well other helps to the soul and body of each and every one of my neighbors whomsoever.

It is not hard to imagine Pope Francis saying these words today. And it is not hard to imagine some of the pope’s critics living comfortably at Port-Royal. Here is a hermeneutic for understanding Pope Francis that warrants the attention of theologians and students of the history of the Society of Jesus. I think it is key to understanding Francis to remember always that he is deeply rooted in the same Spiritual Exercises and other early writings of the Society that gave birth to a ministry of consolation and which provoked such a strong, and in the event, heretical reaction. Let’s hope history does not repeat itself.

So, these are the themes of this pontificate and when the Holy Father comes to the U.S. next month, they will all be in evidence. Tomorrow, I will look at some of the specific themes we can anticipate him to address during his visit.



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