Thursday, March 13, 2014

“You’re infallible. Don’t blow it.”

One year ago today, the (honorary) clergy of Rome elected one of their number, Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, as Bishop of Rome. By virtue of this election, Cardinal Bergoglio also assumed the titles of: Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, and my personal favorite, Servant of the Servants of God.

In other words, the Pope.

Asked by what name he would be called, he chose that of Francis.

It would behoove many of the faithful, to reflect upon a piece written fourteen years ago tomorrow, by the late Joseph Sobran, who passed into eternity in September of 2010.

If I were Pope — not that I'm seeking the office, or being considered for it -- I'd keep a slogan on my desk ...

... which inspires the title of this piece.

The rest applied to an earlier pontificate, but is still very timely, and a reminder of what we must understand, and often fail to understand, about the nature of whichever man wears "the shoes of the fisherman."

Much has been written about Pope Francis. Most of it falls into one of two categories.


The first, and most prevalent, would have us believe that Francis is the first pope within living memory to demonstrate any sense of humility, disdain for ostentation, or would otherwise purport to be a man of the people. Early in his pontificate, Francis was photographed walking into the papal audience hall, and sitting in one of the common chairs. Some well-intentioned and ill-informed pundit wrote: "What does this say about his humility?" Well, it doesn't say anything. What it does say is that he is seventy-eight years old, has two hip replacements, one working lung (which is why he spoke rather than chanted his first blessing to the crowds upon his election), wears specially-made orthopedic shoes, and was very very tired on that day. Francis has refused to move into the papal apartments (which are not nearly as palatial as some would believe), choosing instead to live in a dormitory with others. He has cited "psychological reasons." Merely observing him, it would not surprise this writer to learn that the pope struggles with at least a mild case of clinical depression, and is best aided in this challenge by the company of others. (Full disclosure: This writer was diagnosed with the same condition nearly twenty years ago.)

Making this out to be the first gettin'-down-with-the-hoi-polloi pontificate in modern times is utter nonsense.

• Pope Pius X (born 1835, reigned 1903-1914), upon arriving for his coronation, shocked his entourage by wearing a pectoral cross made only of gilded metal, which he insisted on keeping. Not only did Pius X refuse to grant titles of nobility to members of his family (much to the disappointment of his sisters, who were counting on being, uh, countesses), but refused to dine alone, a custom dating to Pope Urban VIII in the 17th century. The man once known as Guisseppe Sarto would walk through the slums of Rome, giving children candy, and testing them on their catechism.

• Pope Pius XII (1876, 1939-1959), who has been accused of being indifferent to the plight of the Jews during World War II, was in fact personally responsible for hiding thousands of them in the halls of the Vatican. Such was the extent of his compassion (noted at the time by the New York Times, Golda Meir, and Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum) that the Chief Rabbi of Rome converted to the Faith, and eventually died estranged from his family. After the bombing of Rome by Allied forces, the man who was born as Eugenio Pacelli was driven to the ravaged section of the city, and met with the crowds personally to comfort and encourage them.

• Pope John Paul II (1920, 1978-2005) led bands of youth groups on hiking and camping trips while a priest, and enjoyed kayaking and downhill skiing even as a bishop, and went hiking in the mountains even after his election. The man once known as Karol (Charles) Wojtyła still received old friends (including his Jewish ex-girlfriend, by then married) even as pope, most of whom still addressed him as "Lolek" (roughly translated as "Charlie").

• Benedict XVI (1927, 2005-2013), who brought about a reprise of some trappings of ecclesiastical pomp and ceremony to the papacy, was often seen while still a cardinal, walking across St Peter's Square, and stopping to speak with young people. He was a favorite encounter of seminarians studying in Rome, groups of which would know his schedule, and would wait in the square by the busload. The man once named Josef Ratzinger, whose diligence as the Church's chief guardian of doctrine earned him the nickname "God's Rotweiller," was a most capable classical piano player, and enjoyed a game of bocci with the elderly men who lived near his apartment.

Exit question: To draw so much attention to anyone's show of humility does not exactly help them with it. If Pope Francis insists that he is as human as anyone else, is it possible that he is trying to remind us?


There is also the other class of pundits when it comes to Pope Francis.

Would it have killed the new pontiff to wear the red velvet-and-ermine-trimmed mozzetta, with the red-and-gold papal stole, as he first appeared on the balcony following the election, as did most of his predecessors for many years?

Probably not, but he refused just the same. Few can say why. When presented with a selection of papal accoutrement, he has opted for the least demonstrative. That would not be bad in itself, but even his namesake from Assisi admonished the priests among his band of brothers, to spare no expense in resorting to the finest in vessels and vesture when offering the Holy Sacrifice. And yet the man who now bears that name as Vicar of Christ celebrates Mass wearing vestments which, while not necessarily ugly, hardly show an appreciation for finery, and tend to be rather plain. Eschewing ostentation for oneself is one thing. Doing so as alter Christus? That is another matter, one that justifies concern for many faithful Catholics.

To be a Catholic is to inherit a birthright that converges the Truth with beauty, if only to show the foretaste of the Heavenly banquet, wherein lies the source of all Truth. Ours is a Faith of signs and symbols that form our identity, that remind us not only of who we are, but what we do, and why.

When you add all that up, it's not about him. There's a lesson to be found there, and it's not only one for him.


We may benefit from a closer look at the man once known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

He is the first pope in nearly two millennia of the Church's existence, to hail from the Western Hemisphere. More than that, he is the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere, wherefrom in short order, the majority of the world's one-billion-plus Catholics will reside. This alone suggests a world view that sets a precedent for the kind of man who bears the papal office. For example, in one of his first interviews, he insisted that "I am not a right-winger." That means one thing to American and European audiences, but quite another to most South Americans, including his home country of Argentina. To us in the States, it refers to a form of political and/or social conservatism. To him, it may imply support for the so-called "dirty war" of military dictatorship in Argentina during much of the latter 20th century.

All told, it should come as no surprise to anyone, that the first Pope from the other side of the world, is going to have a different view of it. The same could be said of anyone coming from the other side of most anything.

Equally significant, is that Francis is also the first member of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits, to reign as the Successor of Peter. Since their establishment in 1534, the Jesuits have traditionally been known as the "intellectual shock troops" of Mother Church. Devoted to zealous missionary work in the most dangerous and remote of places, Jesuits are less men of contemplation than they are of action. They were the first religious community to recite, rather than chant, the Divine Office in common, and so have traditionally been indifferent to the details of liturgical ceremony. (This despite the wealth of Jesuits among the great liturgical scholars of the past century.) Many are devoted to teaching and scholarly research, especially the sciences, while being preoccupied with little else. The Vatican Observatory has been operated by Jesuits for much of its history. Francis himself was a chemical lab technician before entering formation, and afterwords, was a teacher of literature, psychology, and theology, and later a master of novices, and head of the Argentine province. And while parishes around the world are administered by Jesuits, it is not parish work for which the Society is best known, thus their appeal to those of the faithful who do not easily fit into conventional parish life.

And so we have a man whose life has formed an intellectual bubble of sorts, and one for whom the only foreign country he has ever visited up to now is Italy. Were he never elected the Pope, we might relegate him to the place of absent-minded professor, one whose musings, while not intending to promote error outright, are nonetheless off the cuff and perhaps wanting for clarification. That such a man would one day become Pope does not make such habits go away easily.

With this way of viewing the world, and one's place therein, John Hathaway, OCDS, has made his observation.

Pope Francis's consistent problem in just about every "controversy" [is that] he assumes that his audiences, especially non-Catholics, know the background in theology, ecclesiology, liturgy, philosophy, spirituality and/or church history (recent or long-term) to contextualize whatever his comments are. Maybe the laity in Argentina are better formed than the rest of us, or maybe he's just a bit more naive than people want to think. I've found that to be a common problem of priests of his generation: they were well formed by their own pre-Vatican II parents, saw the "problems" in what [the German theologian and philosopher] Dietrich von Hildebrand called the "ossified" church, stuck with the Church optimistically while others left after the Council, and entered the otherwise secluded enclave of priestly life, while others were fighting in the trenches against the fruits of postmodernism.

Francis' worldview may presume too much in the way of freedom to speculate, to reach out into the last frontiers of thought on matters of heaven and earth. This is acceptable enough within the realms of academia, but the problem arises once outside those ivy-covered walls. One might be attuned to the nuances of meaning in such speculation, but if you are not (and the vast majority of the faithful are certainly not), it is very hard to tell. So when someone begins an assessment of a life devoted to the misuse of the gift of human sexuality by saying “Who am I to judge?” it matters little what follows. That is what people will remember, with shameless promotion by those whose limited vision will serve to proclaim it, to the exclusion of its context.


Pope Francis says that he wants a church that is for the poor. She always has been. Would he appear to eschew the financial resources of the Church, which has several hundred facilities around the world devoted simply to giving away free health care? Again, he is from a part of the world which has a much broader disparity between haves and have-nots than countries from, say, the other side of the world, that from which every other Pope has come until now. To understand such remarks as these, is to understand that, as opposed to any fears of him giving away the store.

Pope Francis has called upon us not to isolate ourselves, but to go out into the world and evangelize. This is not a new concept. When he alludes to a preoccupation with rules and regulations, he surely does not wish to forgo them, but to go beyond them, to live them, as if to say to us ... something like ...

"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16)

Pope Francis has given several interviews. He has openly expressed regret for at least one of them, at one point lamenting that if one says enough, he will be misunderstood.


In any communication, the first responsibility is not that of the receiver, but the transmitter. If the transmitter is misguided, the disposition of the receiver is irrelevant; the message is wrong, and the onus is on the messenger. If the receiver is misguided, then the transmitter has nonetheless conveyed his message. Whenever someone has to begin an explanation with "What the Holy Father actually meant was ..." then it is not up to the faithful to try and figure it out, but up to the Holy Father to think twice before saying it even once. It is the least that is expected of any one of us, and thus is neither unreasonable, nor a personal attack.

That being said, those who expect him to be a carbon copy of any of his predecessors are going to be disappointed. Do we pray for him enough? Yours truly has actually seen prayers composed by those frustrated with the difficulty of understanding him, and so wish for his early demise. We do indeed have a problem, and it is more serious than any Pope. It is a sickness of those whose faith is so dependent on a personality cult, that failure to meet certain expectations brings out the worst in them.

Who among us implores Our Lady, the Seat of Wisdom, to come to the aid of a man who is so devoted to Her, who would listen to the still, small voice that is Her Son? Do we always wish ill of those who fail us? Never mind Pope Francis; what does that say about us?


It is one thing held in common, both by those who faun over every utterance of Pope Francis, and those who are convinced he's out to destroy the Latin Mass and flush the Church right down the toilet. It is the failure to understand the sad reality that ... Popes say stupid things.

That's right, they do, all the time, if only because they are just as inclined to human foibles as the rest of us. This includes the first one, who within twenty-four hours of insisting that he would follow Our Lord to the bitter end, repeatedly denied ever knowing him just to save his own skin. This even after Christ assured him: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” (Luke 22:31-32)

If you remember, that was when all but one of the Apostles -- the first bishops -- went running scared at the first sign of trouble. Most of their successors have been running scared ever since, and often over far less. Even now, Pope Francis is being blamed because some German bishops have called for divorced Catholics who remarry outside the Church to be able to receive communion. Has this Pope endorsed this view from the German bishops? We tend to forget when the English bishops, save for one, broke allegiance with Rome for the sake of King Henry. We have the benefit of hindsight when we remember such episodes in our history. What is it in the current day that would prevent those errors from happening again? Do we blame the Pope at that time for what they did? No, we blame the errant bishops, who stood by and watched while one of their own, John Fisher, was put to death. And what of now?

We forget that this Pope already refuses to administer communion to the general public at Papal Masses, lest he be exploited as a photo op for political leaders who support abortion. Has any Pope before him done this? Are we innocent of selling him a little short in at least one respect?

In the last two thousand years, Popes have been exiled, imprisoned, executed. They have been given to poor judgment, weak constitution, even sexual voyeurism. Closer to the present, after having a "rock star" for a Pope, followed by a scholarly giant, we have someone who is either not all that glamorous (and who, by whose own admission, makes no claim to be), or is being repackaged as such, perhaps to serve some other purpose, or simply fill time on a newscast. If this is the worst we can say about Pope Francis, then do tell, in the total scheme of things -- and we're talking two thousand years worth here -- how bad can he possibly be, and in only his first year on the job?

Put not your trust in princes,
    in a son of man, in whom there is no help.
When his breath departs he returns to his earth;
    on that very day his plans perish.
Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the LORD his God ...
(Ps 146:3-5)



Liz said...

We need to pray for him much more than we call on him to speak clearly the teachings of the Church, even when it's painful for some people to hear, but I believe we need to do both.

Theodore M. Seeber said...

I'm not even sure academic freedom, within the walls of academia, was a good idea. The sexual revolution, libertarian economics, and toleration of sin have been the result of Academic Freedom- and have all been universal disasters.

The Geeks said...

Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
thank you :)

David L Alexander said...