07 April 2013

Who is Pope Francis?



Since the election of Pope Francis, Catholics of every stripe have been reading tea leaves to divine what sort of man he is, what kind of pope he will prove to be. Those on the Left see and fear a Jesuit who was held in contempt by the other Jesuits in Argentina because he stood in the breach against Liberation Theology, and those on the Right see and fear a Jesuit who behaves like a Jesuit in the celebration of the sacred liturgy. And partisans of every kind are stamping and sweating like frightened horses, wondering what these signs portend. To one and all I say: Chill out.

Papa Bergoglio is the 266th Bishop of Rome, and there will be a 267th. In our long history we have had great saints and craven cowards and brave reformers and depraved degenerates along with mystics, theologians, fools, worldlings, philosophers, warriors, diplomats, and a few men of world-historical stature. They each did their bit and then went to their judgment. And after each came another. The same will be true here.

Beyond that, however, here is what we know. Jorge Bergoglio is a man of intense and orthodox Catholic faith which he lives in great personal simplicity and complete dedication to the least of Christ’s brethren. These commitments incline him to brush aside many of the traditional dignities of his office, both as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and now as Bishop of Rome, and to Traditionalists, brushing aside anything traditional is a sign of danger. But let’s be candid: many of the trappings of the hierarchy are derived from Imperium more than from Evangelium, and from time to time it is useful for the Church to ponder this distinction and make whatever changes will bring the Gospel more clearly to the center of the Church’s life.

Meanwhile on the Left, Papa Bergoglio’s simple and accessible style has awakened hope of “progress” in those who would like to see the Catholic Church transmogrify itself into the Anglican Communion, but that is a fool’s hope, and those who want women priests and a Catholic blessing on contraception and same sex marriage will wait in vain until the Last Day. The gentle smile and personal humility of Pope Francis do not mean that he isn’t an orthodox Catholic who will defend the Church in the public square, and if you doubt that, just ask the socialist tyrant who presently lives in the presidential palace of Argentina.

Now, let’s talk about the liturgy. Long before the Liturgy Wars that followed the Second Vatican Council, the expression “He’s as useless as a Jesuit in Holy Week” had a hallowed history. By this phrase priests meant to say that Jesuits generally have no interest and little competence in the ars celebrandi to which so much attention was directed in the last pontificate. The dramatic change in style between Benedict XVI and Francis has caused no little discomfort to those who hoped that the return of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite would lead to the final defeat of living room liturgy in the Western Church, but I suspect that Papa Bergoglio’s liturgical praxis is not a sign that he’s some sort of ritual Bolshevik. Rather, it is simply a pointed reminder that he is a Jesuit and therefore that he will be “useless in Holy Week.”

One final thought. In his new book Evangelical Catholicism, George Weigel argues that the Church is presently living through a transition from its Counter Reformation arrangement to something new: its Evangelical Catholic configuration. I believe that Weigel is correct, and one consequence of that transition will be the letting go of whatever in the Church is derived from Imperium rather than from Evangelium. This process has been underway in fits and starts for more than a century, and it will continue -- and, I suspect, accelerate -- in new ways during the pontificate of Pope Francis. Those who are discomfited by this transition would do well to consider the arguments made by Weigel in his book and to bear in mind the essential differences between matters of style and matters of substance. Jorge Bergoglio manifestly believes that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, and he will fulfill his new duties as Bishop of Rome and Pastor of the Universal Church according to the truth of the Gospel. If he chooses, however, not to maintain some of the accoutrements of a Renaissance prince, then let no one read into that more than Pope Francis intends: Ecclesia Semper Reformanda et Purificanda.