Pope Francis surprises

It hasn’t yet been a week since he was elected, but the man announced as Cardinal Bergoglio/Pope Francis who first appeared to the world on the loggia of St. Peter’s and stood stiff and straight and speechless for what seemed a long time took only a few minutes to throw the world off balance. In a good way.

The ‘firsts’ are legendary now. First Jesuit pope, first Pope Francis, first pope to ask for the people’s prayers for him and bow to receive it in a moment of silence, before he blessed them. And so on. He is who he is, and so profoundly and historically weighty an elevation as this was not going to change him. Take a look at this brief video of the cardinals greeting him after the election. Many of them left laughing. And the account of the doorman at the Jesuit house in Rome who answered the phone when the pope called to thank the Father General for his gracious letter of congratulations.

Over the weekend Facebook was filled with photos of the new pope checking out at his hotel in Rome and paying his own bill from his own funds, in his white papal garments. Which were quickly followed by photos from inside the bus where cardinals were shuttled around Vatican grounds and there in one of the bus seats was a white-robed pope. He opted for that ride instead of a chauffered car. The Vatican is not used to this.

He greeted the credentialed journalists who covered the  conclave and his election – about 6,000 of them – and disarmed them with his ready wit and easy smile. And a message that was pointed and direct but warm.

The role of the mass media has expanded immensely in these years, so much so that they are an essential means of informing the world about the events of contemporary history. I would like, then, to thank you in a special way for the professional coverage which you provided during these days – you really worked, didn’t you? – when the eyes of the whole world, and not just those of Catholics, were turned to the Eternal City and particularly to this place which has as its heart the tomb of Saint Peter. Over the past few weeks, you have had to provide information about the Holy See and about the Church, her rituals and traditions, her faith and above all the role of the Pope and his ministry.

I am particularly grateful to those who viewed and presented these events of the Church’s history in a way which was sensitive to the right context in which they need to be read, namely that of faith.
Historical events almost always demand a nuanced interpretation which at times can also take into account the dimension of faith. Ecclesial events are certainly no more intricate than political or economic events! But they do have one particular underlying feature: they follow a pattern which does not readily correspond to the “worldly” categories which we are accustomed to use, and so it is not easy to interpret and communicate them to a wider and more varied public. The Church is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails, yet her nature is not essentially political but spiritual…

He also gave them a scoop.

Some people wanted to know why the Bishop of Rome wished to be called Francis. Some thought of Francis Xavier, Francis De Sales, and also Francis of Assisi. I will tell you the story. During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop Emeritus of São Paolo and Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Claudio Hummes [OFM]: a good friend, a good friend! When things were looking dangerous, he encouraged me. And when the votes reached two thirds, there was the usual applause, because the Pope had been elected. And he gave me a hug and a kiss, and said: “Don’t forget the poor!” And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor! Afterwards, people were joking with me. “But you should call yourself Hadrian, because Hadrian VI was the reformer, we need a reform…” And someone else said to me: “No, no: your name should be Clement”. “But why?” “Clement XV: thus you pay back Clement XIV who suppressed the Society of Jesus!” These were jokes. I love all of you very much, I thank you for everything you have done. I pray that your work will always be serene and fruitful, and that you will come to know ever better the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the rich reality of the Church’s life.

The next day, his first to celebrate Mass and deliver the traditional mid-day Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, Francis took to the streets near the Vatican in an impromptu outreach to the people. It must have given the papal security detail fits. But that’s how he sees the mission of helping people ‘to know ever better the Gospel’ and ‘rich reality of the Church’s life’ and it’s the way he did it in Argentina.

So what did papal biographer George Weigel, one of the top world experts on the Catholic Church and the papacy, chief Vatican analyst for NBC News, have to say about this pick, after all? After the beloved and legendary John Paul II. After Benedict XVI. Excellent philosopher succeeded by excellent theologian, both of whom had participated in Vatican II and the blueprint for the Church’s engagement with the modern world. After Weigel recently released his latest book ‘Evangelical Catholicism’ as a blueprint for ‘Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church’?

With great aplomb, Weigel called Francis ‘The First American Pope’, and pronounced him just the right pick.

The swift election of Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J., as bishop of Rome is replete with good news — and not a little irony. To reverse the postmodern batting order, let’s begin with the good news.

A true man of God. The wheelchair-bound beggar at the corner of Via della Conciliazione and Via dell’Erba this morning had a keen insight into his new bishop: “Sono molto contento; e un profeta” (“I’m very happy; he’s a prophet”). That was certainly the overwhelming impression I took away from the hour I spent with the archbishop of Buenos Aires and future pope last May — here was a genuine man of God, who lives “out” from the richness and depth of his interior life; a bishop who approaches his responsibilities as a churchman and his decisions as the leader of a complex organization from a Gospel-centered perspective, in a spirit of discernment and prayer…

A pope for the New Evangelization. The election of Pope Francis completes the Church’s turn from the Counter-Reformation Catholicism that brought the Gospel to America — and eventually produced Catholicism’s first American pope — to the Evangelical Catholicism that must replant the Gospel in those parts of the world that have grown spiritually bored, while planting it afresh in new fields of mission around the globe.

Weigel nailed that, “parts of the world that have grown spiritually bored.” How to address the global culture today, and even find mission fields?

Here, in a statement that then-cardinal Bergoglio had a significant hand in drafting, is what John Paul II and Benedict XVI have called the “New Evangelization” in synthetic microcosm:

The Church of the 21st century cannot rely on the ambient public culture, or on folk memories of traditional Catholic culture, to transmit the Gospel in a way that transforms individual lives, cultures, and societies. Something more, something deeper, is needed.

Something much more, and much deeper, and much more accessible is needed.

That is the message that Pope Francis will take to the world: Gospel-centered Catholicism, which challenges the post-mod cynics, the metaphysically bored, and the spiritually dry to discover (or rediscover) the tremendous human adventure of living “inside” the Biblical narrative of history.

Judging from the boatload of other stories to cover, from Washington politics to Wall Street and Eurozone finances, Middle East flashpoints and middle America unrest, UN humanitarian relief missions to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, this is one to get right to get the rest at all. Because they are all centered on the dignity and humanity of the human person, and the right order of the way things ought to be, beautifully articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other documents issued in between and since.

Pope Francis is officially installed at the Mass of Inauguration on Tuesday. It may be just another day to a lot of people. But it’s a new day for a lot of humanity.

As the Conclave begins

The world is watching Rome and the Roman Catholic Church, only as it does it the big moments. The attention that was riveted instantly on the papacy when Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement has only intensified over the subsequent weeks. Now it’s in overdrive, as the College of Cardinals enters the Conclave to elect a new pope.

Here are a few things among many worth looking at right now, as the drama really heightens.

The first two cover the larger picture more deeply, and did so from the week of Pope Benedict’s announcement. They take the longer view and with great perspective.

Stephen White of the Ethics and Public Policy Center wrote this good article for the Huffington Post.

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.)

It also suggests that Pope Benedict XVI understands a pope’s role in the Church as one of leadership, but primarily of service. Among the pope’s many titles — Vicar of Christ, Successor of the Prince of Apostles — is this, The Servant of the Servants of God. He is only a custodian, a shepherd of Someone Else’s flock. The papacy, in other words, was not given him for his sake, but for the sake of the Church’s mission.

These words of Pope Benedict will undoubtedly be foremost in the minds of the 117 Cardinals who will choose his successor: “[I]n today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.”

The Church exists to proclaim the Gospel: That and nothing else is the “relevance” of the Church in the world.

EPPC’s George Weigel, renowned papal biographer and expert Vatican analyst, wrote this commentary that same week for this momentous occasion.

The challenges facing the successor of Pope Benedict XVI come into sharper focus when we widen the historical lens through which we view this papal transition. Benedict XVI will be the last pope to have participated in the Second Vatican Council, the most important Catholic event since the 16th century. An ecclesiastical era is ending. What was its character, and to what future has Benedict XVI led Catholicism?…

Evangelical Catholicism — or what John Paul II and Benedict XVI dubbed the “New Evangelization” — is the new form of the Catholic Church being born today. The church is now being challenged to understand that it doesn’t just have a mission, as if “mission” were one of a dozen things the church does. The churchisa mission. At the center of that mission is the proclamation of the Gospel and the offer of friendship with Jesus Christ. Everyone and everything in the church must be measured by mission-effectiveness. And at the forefront of that mission — which now takes place in increasingly hostile cultural circumstances — is the pope, who embodies the Catholic proposal to the world in a unique way.

So at this hinge moment, when the door is closing on the Counter-Reformation church in which every Catholic over 50 was raised, and as the door opens to the evangelical Catholicism of the future, what are the challenges facing the new pope?

Catholicism is dying in its historic heartland, Europe. The new pope must fan the frail flames of renewal that are present in European Catholicism. But he must also challenge Euro-Catholics to understand that only a robust, unapologetic proclamation of the Gospel can meet the challenge of a Christophobic public culture that increasingly regards biblical morality as irrational bigotry.

The new pope must be a vigorous defender of religious freedom throughout the world. Catholicism is under assault by the forces of jihadist Islam in a band of confrontation that runs across the globe from the west coast of Senegal to the eastern islands of Indonesia.

Christian communities in the Holy Land are under constant, often violent, pressure. In the West, religious freedom is being reduced to a mere “freedom of worship,” with results like the ObamaCare Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate.

Thus the new pope must be a champion of religious freedom for all, insisting with John Paul II and Benedict XVI that there can be neither true freedom nor true democracy without religious freedom in full. That means the right of both individuals of conscience and religious communities to live their lives according to their most deeply held convictions, and the right to bring those convictions into public life without civil penalty or cultural ostracism.

This defense of religious freedom will be one string in the bow of the new pope’s responsibility to nurture the rapidly growing Catholic communities in Africa, calling them to a new maturity of faith. It should also frame the new pope’s approach to the People’s Republic of China, where persecution of Christians is widespread. When China finally opens itself fully to the world, it will be the greatest field of Christian mission since the Europeans came to the Western Hemisphere. Like his two immediate predecessors, the new pope should recognize that the church’s future mission in China will be imperiled by any premature deal-making with the Chinese Communist regime, which would also involve an evangelical betrayal of those Chinese Christians who are making daily sacrifices for fidelity to Jesus Christ.

The ambient public culture of the West will demand that the new pope embrace some form of Catholic Lite. But that counsel of cultural conformism will have to reckon with two hard facts: Wherever Catholic Lite has been embraced in the past 40 years, as in Western Europe, the church has withered and is now dying. The liveliest parts of the Catholic world, within the United States and elsewhere, are those that have embraced the Catholic symphony of truth in full. In responding to demands that he change the unchangeable, however, the new pope will have to demonstrate that every time the Catholic Church says “No” to something — such as abortion or same-sex marriage — that “No” is based on a prior “Yes” to the truths about human dignity the church learns from the Gospel and from reason.

And that suggests a final challenge for Gregory XVII, Leo XIV, John XXIV, Clement XV, or whoever the new pope turns out to be: He must help an increasingly deracinated world — in which there may be your truth and my truth, but nothing recognizable as the truth — rediscover the linkage between faith and reason, between Jerusalem and Athens, two of the pillars of Western civilization. When those two pillars crumble, the third pillar — Rome, the Western commitment to the rule of law — crumbles as well. And the result is what Benedict XVI aptly styled the dictatorship of relativism.

What kind of man can meet these challenges? A radically converted Christian disciple who believes that Jesus Christ really is the answer to the question that is every human life. An experienced pastor with the courage to be Catholic and the winsomeness to make robust orthodoxy exciting. A leader who is not afraid to straighten out the disastrous condition of the Roman Curia, so that the Vatican bureaucracy becomes an instrument of the New Evangelization, not an impediment to it.

The shoes of the fisherman are large shoes to fill.

And that process, which began broadly and unofficially weeks ago, and officially with the cardinals assembling in Rome for over a week and a half, begins with new gravity now.

News media skip World Youth Day

And thus, one of the biggest stories on the planet right now. Certainly, the most positive and hopeful one at the moment.

Where are all the social commentaries now? After weeklong rioting and violence in London by hostile youth mobs seized world media attention in continuous news cycles filled with political and social analysis, we have a weeklong ‘event’ in another European capital with a million young people pouring in from all over the globe and it’s largely and intentionally ignored by big media.

Never mind them. Here’s the story.

On the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival in Madrid, the young people of the world gathered to welcome their Holy Father to the third World Youth Day he has presided over since his election in 2005.

This started with the ‘John Paul II Generation,’ but the Cardinal Archbishop of Madrid designated this WYD as a turning point, marked by new realities young people are facing and answering in the ‘Benedict Generation.’

A massive Festival of Reconciliation, where confessions were heard in more than 10 languages, was inaugurated in Retiro Park — Madrid’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park — all fulfilling Pope Benedict’s desire that this World Youth Day be marked by a dedication to the formation of the young in the truths of the Catholic faith.

(more on that point in a moment…) 

Prior to the Holy Father’s arrival, the night of Aug. 16 belonged to both Pope John Paul II, the great friend of the world’s young people, and the Catholic faith of Spain…

It was marked by recalling the past and continuing spiritual presence of Blessed Pope John Paul II in the lives of young Catholics throughout the world. Cardinal Ruoco also called his fellow citizens of Spain to remember their Catholic roots and to see the week ahead as an opportunity to renew and strengthen their ancient faith. 

(again, hold that thought…)

In his homily during the “Mass of Blessed Pope John Paul II,” the newly approved liturgy since the late Pope’s beatification in May, the 74-year-old cardinal invoked the name of the Polish Pope more than a dozen times…

I’m talking about the unforgettable, venerable and beloved John Paul II — the Pope of youth! With John Paul II begins a new historical period, unprecedented, with respect to the Successor of Peter’s relationship with the youth, and, consequently, a relationship that until then did not exist between the Church and her young: direct, immediate, heart to heart, imbued with a faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, enthusiastic, hopeful, joyful, contagious.”

With these words, a spontaneous and lengthy applause broke out across the plaza, and hundreds of national flags were waved in the steamy, 90-degree evening air, including two flags representing communist China, flags which are not normally seen at large Catholic gatherings.

Get that? This is a hugely important human event. Benedict is talking to them about ‘the full measure of what it means to be human’, about totalitarianism, lack of reference to God, utilitarian ideologies closed to reason, and the authentic idea of a university and the search for truth. He quoted Plato: ‘Seek truth while you are young, for if you don’t it will later escape your grasp.’

And much more….

So about those references to calling these young people to renew and strengthen their heritage in an ancient faith, John Allen sketches out this early but accurate and finely detailed ‘big picture’ of what’s happening in Madrid this week.

This is an important analysis.

The big picture is the following: World Youth Day offers the clearest possible proof that the Evangelical movement coursing through Catholicism today is not simply a “top-down” phenomenon, but also a strong “bottom-up” force.

“Evangelical Catholicism” is a term being used to capture the Catholic version of a 21st century politics of identity, reflecting the long-term historical transition in the West from Christianity as a culture-shaping majority to Christianity as a subculture, albeit a large and influential one…

Historically speaking, Evangelical Catholicism isn’t really “conservative,” because there’s precious little cultural Catholicism these days left to conserve. For the same reason, it’s not traditionalist, even though it places a premium upon tradition. If liberals want to dialogue with post-modernity, Evangelicals want to convert it – but neither seeks a return to a status quo ante. Many Evangelical Catholics actually welcome secularization, because it forces religion to be a conscious choice rather than a passive inheritance. As the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, the dictionary definition of an Evangelical Catholic, once put it, “We’re really at the dawn of Christianity.”

Paradoxically, this eagerness to pitch orthodox Catholicism as the most satisfying entrée on the post-modern spiritual smorgasbord, using the tools and tactics of a media-saturated global village, makes Evangelical Catholicism both traditional and contemporary all at once.

This is a most incisive piece, to be taken seriously.

You’ll get Evangelical Catholicism badly wrong, however, if you think of it exclusively as a top-down movement. There’s also a strong bottom-up component, which is most palpable among a certain segment of the younger Catholic population.

We’re not talking about the broad mass of twenty- and thirty-something Catholics, who are all over the map in terms of beliefs and values. Instead, we’re talking about that inner core of actively practicing young Catholics who are most likely to discern a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, most likely to enroll in graduate programs of theology, and most likely to pursue a career in the church as a lay person — youth ministers, parish life coordinators, liturgical ministers, diocesan officials, and so on. In that sub-segment of today’s younger Catholic population, there’s an Evangelical energy so thick you can cut it with a knife.

Needless to say, the groups I’ve just described constitute the church’s future leadership.

….

For the most part, it’s a mistake to diagnose this trend in ideological terms, as if it’s about the politics of left vs. right. For today’s younger Catholics, it’s more a matter of generational experience. They didn’t grow up in a stuffy, all-controlling church, so they’re not rebelling against it. Instead, they’re rebelling against a rootless secular world, making them eager to embrace clear markers of identity and sources of meaning.

It’s not that this is utterly fascinating writing, it’s that Allen has so deftly studied, analyzed and correctly explained the church today, at this moment in history, its role in the world and its future in the hands of this young generation in the midst of the world.

World Youth Day is perhaps the lone international venue where being faithfully, energetically Catholic amounts to the “hip” choice of lifestyle. To be clear, this passion isn’t artificially manufactured by party ideologues and foisted on impressionable youth, like the Nuremberg rallies or Mao’s Red Guard brigades; it’s something these young believers already feel, and WYD simply provides an outlet.

In that sense, World Youth Day is the premier reminder of a fundamental truth about Catholicism in the early 21st century. Given the double whammy of Evangelical Catholicism as both the idée fixe of the church’s leadership class, and a driving force among the inner core of younger believers, it’s destined to shape the culture of the church (especially in the global north, i.e., Europe and the United States) for the foreseeable future. One can debate its merits, but not its staying power.

Nor its power to communicate, through the new ‘gatekeeper media’. No wonder the old guard don’t want to give them attention.

More than 1 million Catholic kids from across the world are converging on Madrid, Spain, for World Youth Day 2011, and every one of them seems to be tweeting, texting and Facebooking home…

The official World Youth Day website has more than 400,000 members. Facebook is hosting national World Youth Day sites in 21 different languages. There fans who are not able to attend the event in person will be able to light a virtual candle.

“The whole world is online, the church and the Internet, belong together,”…

No denying that, nor counting the ways, people are being reached.