Pope Francis Roars into Town

Pope insideI spent a portion of the late spring in Rome this year, residing at the Generalate of the Salvatorian Fathers on the Via della Conciliazione while doing research in the Vatican archives.  My room faced the noisy Via and I often watched the crowds coming and going to St. Peter’s Square.

From my window I had a bird’s eye view of the Harley Davidson rally that came to Rome in June. It was like having a bit of Milwaukee in the Eternal City (we just had another one of those noisy affairs here on Labor Day Weekend).

On the last day of the rally, barricades were erected down the center of the broad street and on each side Harleys were parked and ready. Papa Francesco traveled between the barricades, waving and smiling. As he passed, the Milwaukee-made Hogs roared in tribute.

I’ve never seen anything like it. Francesco’s smile, ebullience, and energy told me how much he loved being here. Every roar of the engines made that wonderful smile even wider.

And the barricades were of no consequence. Francesco leaned over them and the leather-jacketed, bandanna-wearing bikers reached out beyond them.

I had seen the same thing earlier that month, when the new pope made an unexpected appearance at the end of a Mass in St. Peter’s commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of Pope John XXIII. We saw it again in Brazil at World Youth Day. To the now well-known horror of his security people, the pope insists on reaching over the boundaries to the people, and the people to him.

This barricade-breaching is symbolic of the first months of his papacy. He refused his rooms in the Apostolic Palace. (What apostle ever lived in a palace?) He phones people who write to him—including a rape victim and a woman contemplating abortion. He visits Vatican garages and workshops.

He refuses to shed the role of pastor and bishop for bureaucrat and mere tourist attraction. He insists on having “the smell of the sheep.” He caused a world-wide outbreak of “pearl clutching” by washing the feet of a woman—who was also a Muslim (double horror to liturgical fundamentalists and Islamophobes). He has little use for frilly vestments, ostentatious pectoral crosses, and pompous ceremonies.

On the day of his installation, he gazed at his watch, anxious to keep the ponderous rituals within the limits of human endurance on those hard chairs in the Piazza di San Pietro. With a few simple words about gay priests (and gays everywhere)—“Who am I to judge”—he sounded a new chord of mercy and pastoral practice, albeit one that many priests and religious in the field have struck for years. The barricades keep coming down.

I’ve followed the pope as closely as any priest in the months between March and last August and I don’t know if he’s having a honeymoon of any sort.

The problems, great and small, are still out there: the seemingly never-ending scandals of the Vatican bank, the cardinals who have on their own authority re-swathed themselves in yards of regal scarlet, the grumbling of Latin Mass enthusiasts who find Francis problematic, even the poor souvenir sellers who have huge backlogs of Benedict key-chains, pennants, and Chia statues they cannot sell.

The Vaticanisti continue with their predictions—transmitting what their sources have to say. I read them with some interest, but remember they were the same ones who assured us that we were going to have Pope Scola or Pope Scherer and who conferred legitimacy on Cardinal Peter Turkson’s brutta figura campaign to have himself elected.

A hot-off-the-press book by British journalist Paul Vallely purports to give the real story on Francesco’s years in Argentina. Maybe.

I am not a Vatican insider and have no Roman connections or sources. I spent 40 days in Rome this spring and summer and just watched and observed. I spoke with a few churchmen, but never got what I would consider a scoop. Here are my reflections for what they are worth.

First, Francis is the real deal. There is nothing fake, artificial, or phony about him. The enthusiastic reaction to him reflects a pent-up desire for change and a dissatisfaction with the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.

I got this from priests, religious, and ordinary folks I met at audiences and papal Masses. Francesco is joyful, not morose—not inveighing constantly against the “culture of death,” or singling out enemies to hit, or rallying the “frozen chosen” behind some antiquarian restorationist agenda. His three-point speeches and homilies invite listeners to mercy, compassion, and dialogue.

Second, as a priest, I have paid close attention to the pontiff’s frank condemnation of clerical careerism, which at one point he compared to “leprosy.” On several occasions Francis has sent clear signals that priestly ministry is a vocation not a career path, and that smaller dioceses are not stepping-stones to “something better.” How often I’ve heard the clerical handicapping over the past 30 years—and even done a bit of it myself.

I’ve also watched priests and bishops do the preening, shape-shifting, and calculated denunciations of those on the hit list of previous pontificates (theological dissidents, feminists, gays, etc.) in order to position themselves for a miter or promotion to a more prestigious diocese. I wonder now where all that bella figura will go with a pope who is wise to it all and apparently not impressed by episcopal wannabes? Third, the themes of Francesco’s preaching appear consistent. Love the poor. Priests, get out of your sacristies and rectories and go to the marginalized. Love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable.

From time to time, his informal comments have given rare insights. The lengthy press conference he held aboard the airplane on the trip home from Brazil was remarkable not only for the positive media coverage but also for his willingness to speak frankly and without notes on a wide variety of subjects.

What does the future hold?

More Grist for the Mill. At the end of the official papal vacation season, Francis resumed his daily Masses and thronged audiences. His sermons and allocutions on these occasions are important sources of his thought on many issues.

In August, he gave an extensive interview to his confrere Antonio Spadaro, S.J. of the Italian Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica and which was reprinted in America. This free-flowing and frank discussion once again set the press cycle on fire. Can we hope for more interviews of this kind, perhaps with secular journalists who might pose even tougher questions. Barack Obama sat down with Bill O’Reilly. Could Papa Francesco sit down with Rachel Maddow?

A Momentous Double Canonization. The pontiff obviously respects and holds sacred the memory of John Paul II, the man who made him a cardinal. But his words and presence at the Mass honoring Blessed John XXIII (where he again reached over the barricades) reflected an affinity for that predecessor.

When Francesco showed up at the end of the Mass, the crowd inside St. Peter’s went wild. When the bishop offering him formal greetings noted the pope’s resemblance to the beloved John, the basilica again erupted in cheers. The crowds at both tombs in St. Peter’s are always thronged. This canonization will likely be the biggest event since the elevation of the saintly stigmatic, Padre Pio, in 2002.

Ecumenical Advance. On his trip to Assisi in October, Francis may again reach beyond the barricades—as did Pope John Paul II—to reaffirm one of the critical ecumenical thrusts of Vatican II: to affirm what is beautiful, good, and true in the other faith traditions of the world.

More Vocal Opposition. Francis has already begun to field criticisms of his actions and words. One pro-Latin Mass blogger, Jeffrey Tucker, of the New Liturgical Movement, found “many aspects of this papacy to be annoying”—but later rolled back those comments. A conservative blogger, Katrina Fernandez, also wrote critically of the pontiff’s disregard for ecclesiastical finery and one of her correspondents sniffed about his vestments, “Frankly, he looks like he has kind of tacky taste.” (As if entertaining the pretentious aesthetic sensibilities of these dilettantes is the raison d’être for the sacred liturgy.)

Although Francis has been respectful and loving to his predecessor (his first papal act was to ask prayers for him), there are many who are growing “weary” of the comparisons made between the two men—often unfavorable toward Benedict. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia worries that the “orthodox” will be left behind. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York seemingly downplayed the pope’s kindly words to gays (“He was on a high”) and grumped publicly about the time it’s taking for the pope to move forward on administrative reforms. He too has changed his tone in recent days—now offering three points in his folksy talks and sermons just like Francesco.

Likely, the chorus and the tempo of dissent will pick up if and when he becomes too forceful on issues like social justice. But the right-wing of the Catholic community is ready. These often ferocious defenders of the magisterium will, without blinking, advance a sophisticated method of “nuancing” the reception of papal messages—that will make liberal theologian Charles Curran seem like a troglodyte. What the right once derided as “Cafeteria Catholicism” will now make more sense to them since it’s their ox that’s being gored.

What should we hope for?

At the risk of projecting my own issues on the Holy Father or imagining him to be something he is not, I am encouraged that today there is at least the possibility of engaging a few issues that were simply off the table in the past pontificates.

Francis touched on a neuralgic topic of homosexuality in the church with his “Who am I to judge” comment on gay priests during the press conference home from Brazil. Of course, the barricade battalion was out in full-force insisting that these compassionate words are “what the church always taught.” Fair enough—but as some commentators have noted, the pope’s words suggest a different, more pastoral tone. They come at a moment when social acceptance of homosexuality is rising around the world.

Catholic teaching may not be susceptible to change or the church open to same-sex marriage, but there is increasing acceptance and legitimation of this throughout many portions of the world. The church has to make some credible and intelligent response to the questions raised by this changing cultural climate. Whatever he has said about gays and lesbians has been gentle and respectful—and for those of us in the trenches ministering to these folks, it has been a great relief.

Francis has spent time speaking against clericalism and the offensive careerism it has spawned among priests. Pastors not peacocks are needed now, he insists.

Could he be signaling a major shift in the composition of the College of Bishops and the College of Cardinals? Although this may seem like insider stuff, it really does matter who governs the local churches—because with all due respect to Rome, that is where the action is.

Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI both made it a priority to reshape the College of Bishops, and many of those they appointed to it are good men who genuinely love and wish to serve their flocks. However, Francis should call a halt to consecrating bureaucrats, canon lawyers, and academics of a certain stripe. He should positively reject the obviously ambitious types.

He could also take a cue from his predecessor, who took time to pay attention to what he considered the dysfunctional dioceses in the world. But instead of removing bishops who are poor financial administrators or whose chief “sin” was to call for dialogue with those who disagree with the church, he should move forcefully against any bishop who has knowingly shielded or withheld information about sexual abusers (Kansas City).

He might also investigate cases where the local bishop has lost all credibility and pastoral effectiveness with both priests and people, or who has used the Eucharist as a weapon against political opponents. A good bellwether of where this may be going, at least in the United States, will be the man who replaces Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.

It would be a great idea to revise the rules regarding episcopal selection by involving priests, religious, and lay persons in the process of choosing worthy candidates—as was the case with such ecclesiastical giants as St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. Dioceses should have the benefit of appointments of men who are “lovers of the place”—who grew up and who know the people and the land they serve. Making a Roman education a major criterion for episcopal selection is a short-sighted policy that has deprived the American church of many fine domestically trained men with solid leadership skills and good theological educations.

Francis appears to be placing much stock in the “Gang of Eight” cardinals whom he has chosen to advise him on rewriting the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia. Let’s hope they don’t spend too much time fretting over the Vatican Bank. (Just close the damned thing and transfer its critical functions to new and better monitored agencies.) Can this group transcend the rather narrow task of reforming the curia and recognize the signs of the times and the new framework Francesco’s words and actions have created for the church?

The pontiff should call a halt to the unseemly chasing after the Society of St. Pius X and end the unpopular persecution of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. It is difficult to explain why the Vatican has been so tolerant of people who reject whole or in portion the Second Vatican Council while bashing the American sisters whose major “sin” seems to have been supporting the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare.

As the barricades erected during the past two papacies have begun to be dismantled by Papa Francesco, I have seen so much good will and enthusiasm surface among fellow priests, religious, and lay persons. Hope, that most wonderful of Christian virtues, has risen like a Phoenix, as it always does. He is, at least at this phase of his pontificate, so much like another pope who lifted barricades when he called Vatican II: soon-to-be Saint John XXIII.

It may all come to an end. We have a long-serving diplomat in the Secretariat of State and a Legionary of Christ heading up the affairs of the Vatican state—not much for bold new initiatives in church governance. But whatever Francis accomplishes, he has at least started well.

And if I had a Harley Hog, I’d rev that engine three times in his honor and hold my hands up for a high five.

Since I finished this piece, the Spadaro interview of last August has appeared. Once again the new cycle of commentary erupted from churchmen, Vaticanisti, and people in the pews. Of course the “nothing has changed” crowd served up its regular dish of the hermeneutic of continuity, ignoring or attempting to re-write the church’s often negative and pastorally insensitive actions towards those “on the margins.”

In particular, I am simply amazed by the apparent ease with which they gloss over the explicit criticism of the previous pontificate’s suggestion for a “smaller” church. “This church, with which we should be thinking, is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,” said Francis. “We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”

But these mental contortionists must really be running scared as their sacred triumvirate of abortion, birth control, and homosexuality is being set aside to focus on a new and more pastoral triad: mercy, inclusion, and compassion. Francis speaks of the church for which I was ordained 34 years ago—a “field hospital” with “the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful”; a church that refuses to “lock itself up in small things, in small-minded rules”; a place where training for the priesthood and ministry must produce “ministers of mercy above all.”

Nothing has changed?  In your dreams.

Avanti Santo Padre! Bravo! Bravissimo! 

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