Pope Francis: ‘Can you hear me now?’

Though he didn’t say exactly that, he said that in so many words.

Pope Francis has been provoking and jabbing people on all sides of the political and ideological spectrum since he was elected to fill the Chair of Peter. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI dedicated their pontificates to implementing the rich teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Francis comes along and says, more or less, ‘okay, let’s do this.’ He seems to have his sleeves perpetually rolled up (in a manner of speaking), and his worn shoe leather hitting the ground to reach everyone who comes across his path. In fact, he goes seeking the ones who aren’t on his path, as he did in Rio during World Youth Day week when he instructed his motorcade to stop abruptly so he could jump out and go visit a family living in a house he passed along the way. He must be driving his security detail nuts, but they’re surely getting more used to this pope by now.

After all, he even slips out at night to go into the run down parts of the city of Rome to give alms, evidently.

He has the world’s attention. That’s one thing. But are they hearing him?

I’d love to delve deeper into Evangelii Gaudium, ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, and will. But preparing to leave town on an event with the mission to reach people who want to hear the joy of the Gospel (and God help me if I don’t bring it, in a joyful demeanor a la Francis), there’s no time right now to give those outstanding words and paragraphs the time they deserve right now. In due time…

Suddenly, Catholics in high places who want to get it right and are trying to stay up with this Pope are putting out thought provoking posts like this.

What’s Pope Francis up to? Reminding people of roots and past, urging us forward with a greater awareness of the Trinitarian dimensions of our lives. What’s Archbishop Gomez up to in his Immigration and the Next America? Ditto. Archbishop Chaput in just about every syllable. Something similar. You get the idea. We have a talented and wise bench of American bishops and rising cardinals. They challenge and lead. (Thinking of Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix and so many others.)

If lay Catholics take the lead in the political, really grappling with what Catholic Social Teaching should look like in policy practice in an ecumenical civil context, our pastors will have more time for the pastoral. And we’ll [have] more of a prayer of Catholics who vote and serve with Catholic teaching in mind, discerning their contribution in prayer, infused by the graces of the Sacraments and sanctified living.

In the early going, the ever instructive Jimmy Akin lists his ‘what you need to know’ points about this papal document. I particularly liked point no. 7:

7) What particularly noteworthy things does the pope have to say in the document?

There is a mountain of them.

He’s certainly right on that.

The document is 51,000 words long, which means that it is the length of a novel and takes at least 5 hours to read.

There are numerous important things that the pope says, some of which I will endeavor to unpack in future blog posts.

However, Archbishop Fisichella offers a summary of seven main themes that it covers:

The following seven points, gathered together in the five chapters of the Exhortation, constitute the fundamental pillars of Pope Francis’ vision of the new evangelization:

1. the reform of the Church in a missionary key,

2. the temptations of pastoral agents,

3. the Church understood as the totality of the People of God which evangelizes,

4. the homily and its preparation,

5. the social inclusion of the poor,

6. peace and social dialogue,

7. and the spiritual motivations for the Church’s missionary action.

The cement which binds these themes together is concentrated in the merciful love of God which goes forth to meet every person in order to manifest the heart of his revelation: The life of every person acquires meaning in the encounter with Jesus Christ and in the joy of sharing this experience of love with others.

Sound too ‘churchy’ for you? This pope doesn’t do ‘churchy’ in ways modern culture is used to, or used to ridiculing.

Media are still seeing the document as an excoriation of capitalism. Not exactly, though once again, he jabs everyone. This piece has a good lead.

Nothing worries Catholics more than the reporting of statements made by Pope Francis.

True, I’ve learned early on. He makes everyone nervous. People are working overtime ‘explaining this pope’, I’ve seen time and again.

The reaction across the political spectrum suggested that Pope Francis was breaking with the supposedly ultra-conservative Pope Benedict XVI on emphasis if not entirely on teaching, while others accused Francis of betraying the Cold War legacy of soon-to-be-canonized John Paul II by embracing socialism rather than the free-market economics that liberated Poland and Eastern Europe.

However, a thorough reading of Evangelii Gaudium in the context of the Catechism promulgated by John Paul II fails to substantiate these accusations or celebrations. It’s true that Francis has scalding criticisms of dysfunctional capitalism as an end in itself. One has to consider that in the context of his front-row seat for the Argentinian version of it, where crony capitalism creates a huge distortion in the distribution of goods and the winners corrupt government to perpetuate those outcomes. Argentina hardly holds a monopoly on that development, though, and where gaps of inequality and poverty in these economies grow, criticism of those outcomes don’t make one a socialist. Indeed, Francis even includes a disclaimer against “an irresponsible populism,” even while blasting economies that “attempt to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded” in the same sentence.

For those familiar with Catholic teaching on economics, Pope Francis speaks in a consistent voice with his predecessors.

So, some snips to make the points clearer:

Almost all of the coverage of the document failed to note the actual purpose of the apostolic exhortation, which was to evangelize in the real world….

The Gospel, Pope Francis insists in Evangelii Gaudium, transcends those by reminding us to be mindful of the human cost of markets, and to feel the pain of those who are impoverished rather than dismiss them as mere statistics – like “the 47 percent,” for an example. The central point for Catholics is to evangelize the Word of God through proclamation and service, and not “capitalism,” or “socialism,” or “utopianism.” Francis scolds governments for not structuring their economies better to prevent injustices, but the emphasis in Evangelii Gaudium is on individual action….

Near the end of the exhortation, Francis notes that the state has a responsibility to promote the common good through “the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity.” The key concept of subsidiarity in Catholic doctrine rejects Marxism and command economies, teaching that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order” (paragraph 1883)…

Pope Francis uses a small part of Evangelii Gaudium to challenge Catholics not to invert the means over the ends, i.e., to fall so in love with economic philosophies as to become blinded to their pitfalls and negative outcomes. Far from demanding top-down control over economies, Francis is exhorting Catholics to act personally when they see injustices, and in that effort bear witness to the truth of the Gospel.

If that makes us uncomfortable – and clearly that part of Evangelii Gaudium will do so for Catholics inclined to support market-based economics – it serves as a reminder not to dull our senses so that we grow deaf and blind to the sufferings of the poor, just as the Gospel demands.

And it serves as a blueprint for the way forward.

“The title — ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ — says it all: We need to speak boldly about Christ and the Gospel and do it with joyful lives, engaging the world,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the newly elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register.

George Weigel, the author of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, told the Register that Pope Francis was building on the foundations of his predecessors, but he also identified something “new” from the Church’s first Latin-American pope.

“He puts the New Evangelization at the very center of the Church and orients everything else around it,” said Weigel. “This exhortation demonstrates the seamless continuity between John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis and the continuity between the John Paul-Benedict interpretation of Vatican II and Francis: It’s all about recovering the missionary vocation of everyone.”

Happy to say that I’ve had George Weigel, Archbishop Kurtz, and renowned evangelist Fr. Robert Barron on my show in the past two weeks to talk about what seems like constantly breaking news with this pope and social policy. Each and all have reinforced their enthusiasm for the way and the words Francis chooses to engage the world today. Fr. Barron referred to it as an urgency, like ‘grabbing the lapels’ urgency to make an important point, an urgency he said started with the Apostles.

Wow. It’s been a long time since we’ve felt that. Fr. Barron continues:

“Pope Francis is clear: The one thing that positions everything that the Church seeks to accomplish, from worship to catechesis to efforts to serve the needs of the poor, is the central and urgent task of evangelization.”

And what is its message? The sense of urgency is in the response.

“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” Francis asks.

The Holy Father acknowledges that his strong words might bruise the feelings of some Catholics, but he said that was not his intention.

“My words are not those of a foe or an opponent,” Francis states. “I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains”.

He’s rattling those chains. And we’re hearing him, loud and, hopefully, clear.

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.

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.