Thursday, September 26, 2013

Pope Francis as Pontiff

In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI sat for an extensive, book-length interview with German journalist Peter Sewald. It was published as Light of the World.

In three previous interviews Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had responded to a series of challenging questions with what critiques described as "frank" and "honest" answers: The Ratzinger Report (1987),  Salt  of the Earth (1996), and God and the World (2002).

Now Pope Francis has followed suit --an interview conducted in August, 2013, by Antonio Spadaro, SJ, with publication on September 19, 2013.

The main-stream press described the interview as "sending shock waves from the Vatican."

Pope Francis is quoted as saying, "The Church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you."

He also said, "During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person."

And he said, "The dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent. The Church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."

The full text can be found at America magazine's online site.

Such remarks (here admittedly taken out of context) brought forth a variety of responses and explanations.

For example, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said in a TV interview,  I think what he’s saying is, sometimes, if we come across as negative, as complaining too much, we lose the folks. We’ve got to be positive; we’ve got to be fresh; we’ve got to be affirming. ... I think he’s on to something. He’s a good teacher.”

When he was first elected pope, reports emerged that as Provincial Superior, head of all the Jesuits in Argentina, young Father Jorge Bergoglio began his leadership by rolling back his predecessor's changes and returning pre-Vatican II values and lifestyle.

He insisted that moral theology be taught from a Latin text-book, a requirement that proved troubling to the novices who did not know Latin.

Liberation Theology was taboo.

An older Jesuit, interviewed at the time of Bergoglio's election as Bishop of Rome, gave a less than enthusiastic response: "Yes I know Bergoglio. He's a person who has caused a lot of problems in the (Jesuit) Society and is highly controversial in his own country...We have spent two decades trying to fix the chaos that man left us."

In his assessment, British author Paul Vallely in his book Pope Francis: Untying the Knots (Bloomsbury, 2013) writes that despite his demands Bergoglio was described by some colleagues and students as "a marvelous leader," "a very spiritual man, humble with strong convictions," "responsible for attracting a large number of young men to join the Jesuits at a time when the numbers had fallen."

Now, as we assess the style and theology of Papa Francesco, we are aware that Bergoglio at some time and for some reason underwent a spiritual, theological metamorphosis. He comes across as a different man. Vallely believes the change came from experience, personal experience of living with and for the poor.

The pastoral Bergoglio tempered the clerical Bergoglio, and the result is Pope Francis, the "pope of surprises."

Vallely notes in his book that Pope Benedict had returned to the old practice of saying Mass with his back to the people, but "Francis made plain that this practice had been overturned for good reason, to make the people feel more included in the Church's liturgy. If he had ever doubted that, he learned its truth in the slums of Argentina." Again, another assertion that experience, pastoral experience, is formative.

Robert Mickens, Vatican Correspondent for The Tablet, thinks that cardinals and episcopal conferences are waiting to see what the new pope does next. Mickens thinks many bishops are licking a finger and holding it up in the air, trying to determine which way the wind is blowing.

However you assess Pope Francis and his impact upon the Church, you have to admit that he has people talking. His simplicity of lifestyle, his openness to the crowds, his policy of consultation, his concern for the poor, his defense of outsiders, and his appreciation for the environment have all coalesced into a formidable presence in the Catholic Church.

For centuries the term "pontiff" (from the Latin pontifex, which probably means "bridge builder") has been applied to bishops in the Catholic Church. When referring to the pope, the Bishop of Rome, it is usually rendered "Supreme Pontiff."

Although Pope Francis seems to prefer the title "Bishop of Rome," it may be more fitting to apply the designation "pontiff," for his style and his teaching have certainly become a bridge between the hierarchs and the people of God.

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