Pope Francis, global village pastor

He is the spiritual father the world is looking for, whether they realize it or not.

That’s how papal biographer and Vatican analyst George Weigel put it when we spoke the other day to mark the first anniversary of Jorge Bergoglio’s papacy.

The analysis of his first year, and what it’s the first year of, continues.

A year into the papacy of Pope Francis, however, the world and the Church continue to wonder just what this pontificate will bring — and no small part of that puzzlement, it seems to me, has to do with the “narrativizing of the pope” that has been underway in much of the world media for the better part of a year. Perhaps now, on this first anniversary of his election to the Chair of Peter, it’s time to set aside the narratives and look at what the pope has actually said and done, in order to get a better sense of where he may be leading more than 1.2 billion Catholics and those outside the Catholic Church who look to Francis for leadership and inspiration.

This is incisive.

His most significant papal document to date, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, showed him to be a man completely committed to reenergizing the Church as a missionary enterprise. This evangelical vision of the Catholic future, which was the dominant motif of the last half of the pontificate of John Paul II, is also in continuity with a regularly repeated injunction of Benedict XVI: The days of culturally transmitted Catholicism, or what some might call Catholicism by osmosis, are over and done with.

Though the continuity in teaching and tradition remains unbroken and unchanged, there’s a new tone and style and character in the chief shepherd’s office.

For all his high media profile throughout the world, Pope Francis is actually committed to a certain downsizing of the papacy. His recent complaint about the image of the pope as “Superman,” in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, is not simply a matter of Bergoglio’s objecting to journalists’ turning him into something he knows he isn’t; it reflects his sense that, when the pope is the sole center of attention in matters Catholic, all others are getting a pass on their evangelical responsibilities. Much attention has been paid, over the past year, to what are essentially symbolic aspects of this papal downsizing…

Check them out, he names several.

At the same time, this papal downsizer has shown himself to be a deadly serious reformer of the Roman Curia: a task, he told the Corriere, that was the primary concern of the conclave that elected him. His creation of a new secretariat for the economy as one of the premier offices of the Curia, and his naming of the no-nonsense Australian cardinal George Pell to head it, is little less than an earthquake in the structure of the Holy See. Finance, personnel policy, and administrative oversight have been taken away from what Francis evidently regards as a sclerotic Italian bureaucracy. And those responsibilities have been given to what is expected to be a lean (and, when necessary, mean) operation, which in its crucial first years will be headed by one of the toughest and shrewdest of churchmen, who (not unlike Francis) combines a priest’s heart with a keen nose for corruption.

Francis’s challenge to his newly named cardinals — that they think of themselves as servants, not courtiers — is another expression of his determination to challenge everyone in the Church to greater evangelical fervor. So was his recent charge, to the Vatican office that helps the pope select bishops, to search widely — perhaps more widely than has been the case in the past — to find for Catholicism the local leaders it needs: men of proven evangelical determination, who can call both priests and people to live their missionary vocation more actively, often in difficult cultural circumstances.

Anyone who followed the naming of new cardinals noticed immediately that the pope went, literally, to the ‘existential peripheries’ to which he refers often.

Which brings us to something else that ought to have been learned about Pope Francis over the past year: this is a man with a deep, compassionate, yet searching sense of the profound wounds that postmodern culture inflicts on individuals and societies. Many regarded it as something of a throwaway line when, in one of his daily Mass sermons, the pope made a positive reference to Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel Lord of the World, the first of the 20th-century literary dystopias. But the more closely one reads Pope Francis, especially in those daily homilies, the more one begins to get the sense that Benson’s vision, of a world in which power-madness and aggressive secularism masquerade as reason and compassion, is quite close to Bergoglio’s vision of what he has sometimes described as the idolatries of our time. The pope has spoken passionately about those who have been left behind, materially, in the world economy. But he has spoken just as passionately about the spiritual and cultural impoverishment that comes from imagining that everything in the human condition is plastic, malleable, and subject to change by means of human willfulness.

This is important, in any hope of understanding this pope and where he is leading people.

The pope knows that, amid the polymorphous perversities of postmodernity and the pain they cause, the Church attracts primarily by witness, not by argument. To those who imagine themselves beyond the reach of compassion, the Church offers the experience of the divine mercy. No one, the pope insists, is beyond the reach of God’s power to forgive. That experience of mercy, in turn, opens up its recipient to the truths the Church proposes: the truths the Church believes make for the human happiness that is being eroded by the idolatries of the age, especially the idolatry of the imperial autonomous Self. Mercy and truth are not antinomies, in the Catholic scheme of things. Mercy and truth are two entwined dimensions of God’s reach into history, and into individual lives.

Time [magazine] read the Pope’s self-query, “Who am I to judge?” as the opening wedge to that long-awaited concession by the Catholic Church that it had been wrong, all along, about the sexual revolution. That is not what the pope thinks, having gone out of his way in Corriere della Sera to praise the “genius” and “courage” of Pope Paul VI for “applying a cultural brake” in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, for standing fast against the tidal wave of Sixties permissivism that has led to so much unhappiness and sorrow, and for opposing “present and future neo-Malthusianism.” When Francis asked, “Who am I to judge?” he was responding as a pastor to the particular situation of a man experiencing same-sex attraction. And as the pope said, if that man was trying, with the grace of God, to live an honest and chaste life, he ought not be judged by his temptations, any more than anyone else in this world of endless temptation. Mercy and truth, as always, go together. For the mercy that tells us that we are not beyond the pale of forgiveness is the mercy that leads us into the truths that make for genuine human happiness.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a very old-school Jesuit, and it’s clear that, as such, he is going to be pope his way, not anyone else’s…

And as such, he is capturing the world’s attention, for reasons they may not even know or be correct in identifying. All they know is that he is reaching the human heart and mind and soul on a depth not even perceptible to the senses, except for that of the transcendent. Many people who are not Catholic, including the altogether un-churched, have called him ‘our pope’. And so he is.

While Benedict XVI is still Pope

The media and Vatican watchers are busy speculating about the recent past (what ‘really’ prompted this resignation) and the future (who is ‘most likely’ to replace him), I think it’s important to take the opportunity while he’s still in the Chair of Peter to recognize what is the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI.

There’s no use drumming up conspiracy theories about his motivation, I take him at his word in his declaration. And there’s time enough to cover the conclave when cardinal electors do their spiritual and temporal work of discerning who should succeed to the papacy to lead the church into the future.

Fr. Robert Barron, Rector of Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago, founder of Word on Fire media ministry, and creator and narrator of the magnificent Catholicism series, has done a number of media interviews since the announcement was made public last week and they’re always short and demand practically sound bites for answers (to questions not always well informed to begin with). So he put together this video on the WOF site to elaborate just a bit.

And he talked with me about it Monday in an interview. It was edifying.

The legacy of Pope Benedict XVI encompasses so much, it couldn’t fill a blog post, even with a bundle of hyperlinks. But Fr. Barron has a way of paring things down to the perfect essence, perfect for our short attention span these days, and with a message that’s easy to grasp. He sums up that legacy in three things, he told me, reflecting what you can see on that video.

Pope Benedict was an interpreter of Vatican II. Joseph Ratzinger was at all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council and “contributed mightily to the writing of many of its documents.” As opposed to the prevailing winds blowing after the Council that it had been about a revolution in the church, Ratzinger knew it was the evolution of the church to make it an apt vehicle to go out into the modern world and engage. ‘The intention of the Council was not to modernize the church,’ Fr. Barron said, ‘but to Christianize the world.’ Meaning…for modern sensibilities out of touch with that message…that it was a missionary council filled with zeal for doing with Christ commissioned the apostles to do, which was go out and be a witness to people in the world for the hope and joy you have.

Second, he said, Pope Benedict brought an “affirmative orthodoxy” to the church and the world watching it. Which very much countered the media portrayal of him at his election as the ‘doctrinal hardliner,’ the ‘Panzer Cardinale,’ or ‘God’s Rottweiler,’ among other slurs against the man. In his addresses, messages and writings, ‘the dominant word he used was “joy,” over and over,’ said Fr. Barron. “His stress was always on divine love.”

And third, Benedict’s legacy is all about Christocentrism, in everything he wrote and taught and said and lived. It’s so simple and basic, Catholics and Christians can easily overlook it for the longer, more wordy and complex message. But Benedict simplified it in a most eloquent, theologically brilliant and intellectually clear message: “It’s finally all about Jesus,” said Fr. Barron. “That’s what he leaves us with.”

Benedict did something unprecedented in history by producing a major theological work as pope, a three volume study of Jesus of Nazareth. In the masterpiece by Romano Guardini, The Lord, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote the Introduction in a later release of the work. It was a foreshadowing of what would become the centerpiece of his papacy one day. In it, he wrote this:

As we are taught by Guardini, the essence of Christianity is not an idea, not a aystem of thought, not a plan of action. The essence of Christianity is a Person: Jesus Christ Himself…

Our time is in many respects far different from that in which Romano Guardini lived and worked. But it is as true now as in his day that the peril of the Church, indeed of humanity, consists in bleaching out the image of Jesus Christ in an attempt to shape a Jesus according to our own standards, so that we do not follow Him in obedient discipleship but rather recreate Him in our own image.

And that is truer still today, many years after Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict wrote that Introduction. We are hardly able to even talk about these beliefs in public, hard enough to hang onto them in a world growing increasingly secularized and hostile to Christianity, where ‘tolerance’ has been elevated to the greatest virtue, though it’s terribly skewed.

There’s a very good piece reflecting on this at a Huffington Post blog, and good for them for posting such a good reflection.

Our culture’s complicated relationship with organized religion is closely tied to our culture’s complicated relationship with truth. We love our truth, all right, but we treat truth a lot like religion — it’s fine, so long as everyone else keeps their truth to themselves. Tolerance — which our culture values over all other virtues — consists in not imposing your truth on someone else.

The problem with this well-meaning attempt at tolerance is that it is unsustainable. It’s self-cannibalizing. If there is only your truth and my truth, but no Truth, then there is no common ground upon which to meet one another. Either I’m right, or you are, and since there’s no middle ground, the matter is only ever settled when one side wins and the other side loses. A world without truth isn’t a world liberated from conflict; it’s a world without the possibility of reconciliation.

Pope Benedict’s episcopal motto Cooperatores veritatis — “co-operators of the truth” — suggests a very different understanding of reality; one in which both faith and reason owe allegiance to the same reality, that is, to truth. And truth, at least as the Catholic Church understands it, is best demonstrated, not by carefully reasoned arguments (though those are important) and certainly not by violence, but by self-giving love. There is nothing more compelling, nothing more true, than sacrificial love.

(The central truth of Christian faith — God became man in Jesus Christ, through whose suffering and death we are redeemed — can be summed up like this: God got tired of telling us how to do it, so He decided to come down here and show us.)

Talk about that, Benedict exhorted the faithful. Witness that. You may be the only encounter with Christ people will ever have.

So at the end of the day, at the end of a papacy…

The pope is not a figurehead; he is an apostle. He is not a manager; he is a messenger. By announcing his resignation…Pope Benedict XVI has signaled that the Church of the 21st century will not be a Church of business as usual. It will not be a church of institutional maintenance, of isolation, or of longing for the past. The Church exists to spread the Gospel. And those who have inherited that mission by their baptism must be willing to sacrifice a great deal to answer that calling.