18Mar The new pope gives good omens

When I saw Pope Francis emerging on the famous balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square and looking down silently on the 200,000 plus people, I thought of Pope John Paul I, the quiet Italian who lived about a month after his election as pope in 1978.
Pope Francis looked like a man who was traumatised, almost as if he was asking himself, How did I get myself into this? He was 76, a long way from home, he had a return ticket to Buenos Aires in his back pocket but now, by a quirk of fate or history, he would be a life-prisoner of the Vatican.
Even though it was known that he had come second to Benedict in the last papal election, he looked like a best man who found himself as an unlikely groom at a different wedding several years later and didn’t quite know if he wanted to be there.
At last he broke his silence and he smiled, a broad smile that reminded me of Pope John XXIII who smiled a lot. And then he spoke, almost just above a whisper as he greeted the people of his new diocese, Rome. And then he asked the people to pray for him as he led them in prayer. Simply. In silence. Then the Our Father. The Hail Mary.
It’s going to be difficult to predict what Francis I will be like. Because no one seems to know Jorge Mario Bergoglio. There was an embarrassing silence on the RTE television news after his name was announced because Bryan Dobson and the assembled experts obviously hadn’t a clue who he was. George who? Understandably because his appointment was totally unexpected. He was never included in dispatches. No one had even mentioned him as a possibility.
He’s a conservative, of course, as popes are. And he will be traditional, pressing the predictable buttons, as popes do. But his background is parish, not podium and there is some evidence that he was unhappy with Benedict’s approach, though he was careful to keep it to himself.
So the style will be different: more modest, less certain, more aware of human complexity, less dressing up, fewer dressing downs, fewer titles, less lace. Recently he described some of his own priests in Buenos Aires as in danger of becoming hypocrites because they refused to baptise the children of single mothers. Clearly Francis is not a man impressed with those who preach the rules without any sense of the human predicaments that limit their implementation. A good omen.
The early predictions are that Francis will be a unifier, a reconciler, a moderate as the pendulum swings back again towards the insights of the Second Vatican Council. We shouldn’t expect dramatic change, of course, but we’ve a very different pope now and, as important, a transformed church landscape. The unexpected and unprecedented retirement of Pope Benedict XVI has thrown a grenade into the centre of the Church, starting a debate about what the Church, with its many problems, needs to do now.
Attitudes can change quickly. A few years ago when the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) was founded, it was represented by some bishops, many priests, Catholic papers and very traditional Catholics as a nest of radicals intent on damaging the Church. A year later the Vatican Visitors spoke ominously about the corrosive effects of ‘dissidents’ in the Irish Church, and it was obvious who they meant.
This had the effect of copper-fastening on the ACP a reputation that was unwarranted and unfair. We were demonised because we were asking fundamental questions about the direction the Church has taken over the last two pontificates. And we were suggesting some fundamental changes. Like, for example, that a ‘collegial’ approach of church governance, which emanated from the Second Vatican Council – pope and bishops working together – should be given a fair wind.
Spool the tape on two years and, in the interregnum between the retirement of Benedict and the election of Francis, cardinals, bishops and media – even some of the Catholic press – are saying the same thing! Suddenly, it seems, the supposed ‘dissidents’ were right all along!
Maybe Francis I is the new John XXIII. Around the same age, an unexpected appointment, an outsider brought in from the shadows. The slight, diffident Argentinian might just surprise us. Of course, we don’t know what we’re getting and it may well be no more than the game the cardinals have so often played: an interim appointment, the equivalent of kicking the papal can down the road. Maybe it’s simply a refusal by the cardinals to grasp the nettle but then the cardinals thought John XXIII was an interim appointment, a ‘stop-gap pope’ who went on to transform the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis I has a lot going for him. For one thing he’s not from Rome. While he has had contact with the Vatican he’s from far enough away to have a realistic perspective on the shenanigans that will no doubt now begin to be unmasked. It will be interesting now to see if he has the backbone for tackling the vested interests in the Curia, now universally regarded as the first challenge of his pontificate. Will he bite the bullet?
The name Francis was an inspired choice. Not only does Pope Francis have something of the humility and gentleness and softness of the saint from Assisi but he has too a commitment to the poor as St Francis had. When he was made cardinal he told those who wanted to accompany him to Rome to stay at home and give the money to the poor. When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires he chose to live in a small apartment rather than the archbishop’s palace, took the bus to work and cooked his own meals. This simple, prophetic lifestyle wasn’t a pose or a public relations stunt, it was a way of life. In Buenos Aires he was a man who seemed to prefer visiting the slums to mixing with the rich.
Following in the footsteps of the saint from Assisi, we can expect a quieter, more humble pope, who places a premium on serving the poor and tackling the injustices of society. He may also, like St Francis, be a reformer who comes from outside and has a clear view and a robust commitment to reform. But he will know that reform, of course, like charity starts at home, in Rome.
The first pope for thirteen centuries from outside Europe, the first Third World pope, the first Jesuit pope and the first Francis. It’s a lot of firsts but the last first – choosing the name Francis – may be the most significant of all.
For that and the chink of hope his election represents, we should give thanks. Deo gratias.

6 Responses

  1. Sheila McHugh

    A reflective and very telling piece –

    Who are the people who were waiting for Pope Francis?

    Joan Chittister

    — This column originally appeared in the National Catholic Reporter online 14/3/2013

    Pat Howard, columnist and managing editor of the Erie Times-News, my hometown newspaper, brought his own experience of church-watching to this second papal election in eight years. His description of having been disappointed in the way the church has responded to the questions of the time in the last two papacies gave me a new way to understand what I have been hearing from so many people in so many places these last three weeks.

    The importance of Howard’s opinion piece as a bellwether comment lies in the fact that Erie, PA, is not a hotbed of dissent against anything. On the contrary: This is the kind of small city Americans call “a great place to raise a family.” There are churches in every neighborhood of every stripe in the Christian catalog. There are some longtime Jewish synagogues with their congregations deeply embedded in the life of the city. There is a growing Muslim social center and a strong core of new refugees. We are, that is, a mixed population, and we live together well. There is nothing either New Age or critically atheistic about the area’s social climate. On the contrary: This is a place that registers “average” on just about every social index. Obviously, then, opinion here can be thought to cover a great deal of ground.

    So while reams are being written about what kind of man this new pope should be — scholar, saint, administrator, reformer, whatever — Howard puts his finger on what kind of people are waiting for this pope, whoever and whatever he is. He describes his own growing disillusion with the character of the church and his reasons for it in ways that are eerily reminiscent of similar conversations across the country and from one group to another.

    Howard is clear about the issue: “Pope Benedict’s Vatican labeled … as part of the problem (those who were) too willing to entertain questions and views the hierarchy has declared to be verboten … too open to engaging the real lives, moral qualms and evolving understanding of people in the modern world….

    “I still believe the church will change in due course,” he concludes. “…What I underestimated was the weariness that comes with the waiting.”

    That’s it exactly, I said to myself. It is weariness that is palpable in so many groups now. “I have very little hope in this election,” I hear over and over again. “It will all simply go on business as usual,” they say, and you can almost hear the sigh in the voices.

    The problem is that weariness is far worse than anger. Far more stultifying than mere indifference. Weariness comes from a soul whose hope has been disappointed one time too many. To be weary is not a condition of the body — that’s tiredness. No, weariness is a condition of the heart that has lost the energy to care anymore.

    People are weary of hearing more about the laws of the church than the love of Jesus.

    People are weary of seeing whole classes of people — women, gays and even other faith communities again — rejected, labeled, seen as “deficient,” crossed off the list of the acceptable.

    They are weary of asking questions that get no answers, no attention whatsoever, except derision.

    They suffer from the lassitude that sets in waiting for apologies that do not come.

    There’s an ennui that sets in when people get nothing but old answers to new questions.

    There’s even worse fatigue that comes from knowing answers to questions for which, as laypersons, they are never even asked.

    More false news of a priest shortage drains the energy of the soul when you know that issue could easily be resolved by the numbers of married men and women who are standing in line waiting to serve if for some reason or other, some baptisms weren’t worth less than others.

    They get tired of watching Anglican converts and their children take their place at the altar.

    It gets spiritually exhausting to go on waiting for a pastor again and instead getting a scolding, reactionary church whose idea of perfection is the century before the last one rather than the century after this one.

    They’re weary of seeing contraception being treated as more sinful than the sexual abuse of children.

    All in all, they’re weary of being told, “Don’t even think about it.” They’re weary of being treated as if they are bodies and souls without a brain.

    It’s weariness, weariness, weariness. It’s not an angry, violent, revolutionary response. It’s much worse than that. It’s a weary one, and weariness is a very dangerous thing. When people are weary, they cease to care; they cease to listen; they cease to wait.

    These are the kind of people who waited for a new pope, whatever kind of man he might be.

    At first sight, Jorge Mario Bergoglio — Pope Francis — is a quiet and humble man, a pastoral man and as a Latin American, a leader of 51 million Catholics, or the largest concentration of Catholics on the planet, which is not business-as-usual as far as papal history goes.

    But perhaps the most profound and memorable moment of his introduction is that he presented himself on the balcony in front of thousands of people from all parts of the world not in the brocaded fashion of a pope, but in a simple white cassock.

    And then came the real shock: He bowed to the people. Bowed. And asked them to pray a blessing down on him before he blessed them. Francis, I remembered, was the Christian who reached out to Muslims. Francis, the one who listened to every creature in the universe and dialogued with it.

    Indeed, if this Francis, too, is a listener, there is hope for reconciliation, hope for healing, hope for the development of the church.

    No doubt about it: We know who the people are who have been waiting for a pope and why they are weary. The question now is, Does he know how weary they are? And does he care? Really?

    From where I stand, something has to change. Maybe, just maybe, this time….

  2. Darlene Starrs

    Thank you Father Hoban for that clear assessment of the new pope. Your entry today may be used as a reference point down the road, when we start to measure the progress or non-progress of the Church with Pope Francis. I saw that “We Are Church, Ireland” issued a statement on the election of the Pope, and it too, could be used as a reference point. It’s true that we just do not know, what “reforms” are priority for Pope Francis, but, he began “reform” just by the way that he lives……simply and honestly. I am certainly wanting him to place extreme importance on collegiality and collaboration, and we will know a lot about him, if he addresses the situation of Roy Bourgeois and Tony Flannery. If he doesnot address these situations quickly, honestly, and with compassion, then I will certainly feel the “pinch” of disenchantment and disappointment.

  3. Darlene Starrs

    I was just wondering if anyone on the website uses twitter?
    I do not use this social media, but I wondered who might tweet the question to Pope Francis…..something like:………

    Do you stand by your words given in a 2007 interview, where you said…..the laity have been clericalized…..and that…..baptism ought to suffice…..etc.etc.?

    I make reference to the article: What I would have said at the Consistory……

  4. Joe O'Leary

    True, Collegiality is now on the lips of all the cardinals and on those of Abp Peter Smith in his commentary in the BBC World Service coverage of the papal mass. Advocates of collegiality are breaking down an open door. Francis may be the instrument of a massive push for collegiality, making the Curia subservient to the bishops (I wonder has Abp Smith being reading Mary McAleese?).

    “Clearly Francis is not a man impressed with those who preach the rules without any sense of the human predicaments that limit their implementation”. To refuse baptism to children of unmarried mothers is not a case of implementing rules, is it? I imagine Francis might turn out to be quite a stickler for rules.

  5. Mike O Sullivan

    I was dismayed and sadened to see pictures of Robert Mugabe at the Papal inaguration, our church remains closed with folded arms to divorced and gay people and even towards dissenting clergy, yet robert mugabe is welcomed to the cradle of the church as an invited guest. I am sorry but actions really need to start speaking louder than words.I am disgusted.

  6. Maire

    Well said Mike (@5). If Mugabe could be issued an invitation to speak with Pope Francis, why not Frs Tony, Jerry and Brian, after all these men have committed no crimes. Charity begins at home, does it not?