It is interesting, says a Presbyterian friend of mine, how much non-Catholics love Pope Francis I.
When Francis forsook the regal garb, traded the papal palace for a room in a spartan guest house where meals are taken in common, and swapped his limo for a used Ford Focus, he sent some powerful signals. The public has responded. The Pope is now a pop icon — drawing a crowd of (by one estimate) 3 million to a Mass on the beach of Rio de Janeiro.
I talked to two Roman Catholic priests over a meal a few weeks back (we dined at Bob Evans). These two men have both been priests longer than the Pope. They are both encouraged by a man who reminds them of Pope John XXIII.
But they told me a very interesting thing: They said the enemy of Christ’s Roman Catholic Church is the institutional church itself — the bureaucracy or governmental and hierarchical structure. They said that what is called “the curia” in Rome actually exists in each diocese. It is dominated, they said, by men for whom power is pre-eminent. They live well — far, far from the poor — and value property and money.
The two fathers at supper with me warned that one man against the machine always faces long odds, even if he is the man at the top. They said the curia (in both forms) existed before Francis and will exist after. One of the two priests said: The curia will protect itself, even if the cost is losing most of the faithful. It reminded me of Bertolt Brecht’s remark that a totalitarian government reserves the right to abolish the people and form another. Actually, on his trip to Brazil, Francis warned against this very “sin” of aloofness. He told the clergy to get out of the churches and into the streets.
We all know by now what Pope Francis said about gay Catholics, and priests, on the plane from Rio to Rome. Paraphrasing Christ, he said, “Who am I to judge?” We’re not used to popes, or clergy, taking Christ literally on the matter of judging others. But just as significant, and maybe more so, was the Pope’s comment on remarried Catholics being welcome at the communion rail. He said “this is the moment for mercy” and he said the problem should be “studied” as a matter of “matrimonial pastoral care.”
These two comments, made with seeming casualness, are, in fact, monumental. Pope Francis is trying to do something profound: He is trying to move the institutional church back to the core gospel values of Christ. Francis is a prophetic voice speaking to the institutional church — just like his patron saint. Lore has it that St. Francis heard God’s voice saying, “Go and rebuild my church.”
Pope Francis is a Jesuit. the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and writer based in New York City, has written that Francis’ papacy reflects Jesuit spirituality. Francis returns to three very basic and simple themes again and again: justice (especially concern for the poor), the mercy of God (as signified by the Cross), and the imperative of compassion (as embodied in the life of Jesus).
Francis is one of those people who is most eloquent when unscripted. Recently, on the feast of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, he urged:
“Ask for the grace of shame; the shame that comes from the constant dialogue of mercy with Him; the shame that makes us blush before Jesus Christ; the shame that puts us in tune with the heart of Christ; the shame that harmonizes our heart in tears and accompanies us in the daily following of my Lord.
“And this always brings us to humility, to living this great virtue. Humility that makes us understand, each day, that it is not for us to build the Kingdom of God, but it is always the grace of God working within us ... like clay pots, fragile, inadequate, insufficient, but having within them an immense treasure that we carry and that we communicate.”
As we broke up, after supper, my two priest friends, both pastors, one retired and one still active, said the Pope’s newly formed commission to investigate the abuse of money in Rome is going to shake the foundations of the institution. They said this Pope is very brave — as brave as he is sincere. And they said they pray daily for him.
This is a case of media hype for once being justified. Pope Francis I does represent radical change, not in doctrine but in action; not in dogma but in living faith. That’s radical. As radical as Francis of Assisi, as radical as John XXIII, as radical as the concepts of justice, mercy, and compassion.
Keith C. Burris is associate editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: email@example.com or 419-724-6266.