Friday, May 2, 2014

Francis: Pope and Prophet

Franciscan friar Father Richard Rohr spoke to a filled auditorium at Cincinnati’s Union Terminal on May 1, 2014,  exploring the question, “Can a pope also be a prophet?” And his unambiguous answer was “Yes,” if Pope Francis is the pope and prophet in question.

Rohr describes a prophet as one who has the capacity for self-criticism. This prophetic gift, Rohr went on to say, prompts Pope Francis to analyze the journey of the Church today and offer a variety of course-corrections.

Two sources in which Catholics can find the self-criticism and course-correction are Pope Francis’ pre-conclave remarks to his fellow cardinals and his post-synodal exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel.

Prior to the beginning of the conclave, the cardinals were offered the opportunity to suggest to their fellow electors what they were looking for in a new pope.

In his remarks, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio said “the Church must come out of herself and go to the peripheries.” He spoke of a “theological narcissism,” criticizing the Church for being “self-referent” and of keeping Jesus Christ for herself and not allowing Him to go out.

It may be that these observations were a particularly strong incentive for the electors to choose Bergoglio as the man to replace Pope Benedict XVI.

Rohr said he has asked church historians whether they can recall ever finding such prophetic sentiments in a pope, and the answer has been, “No.”

Since popes are priests, it is unusual to find this kind of self-criticism and exhortation for Church reform since clerics and hierarchs tend to promote the status quo and eschew change. They are, Rohr said, “always tribal thinkers.”

In The Joy of the Gospel  Rohr found further evidence of the pope/prophet’s call for critical change.

Pope Francis reminds Catholics that God wants people to live joyful lives, and that “God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy” (3).

The Church, Pope Francis says, must go forth as an evangelizing community, and adds “Evangelizers thus take on the ‘smell of the sheep’ and the sheep are willing to hear their voice” (24).

“There are ecclesial structures which can hamper efforts at evangelization,” Pope Francis said in paragraph 26. And in 43 urged a re-examination of Church customs, rules and precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for shaping and directing people’s lives.

He recalled the point made by St. Thomas Aquinas that “the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God ‘are very few’” (43).

Rohr noted that Pope Francis appealed to the principle of subsidiarity (decisions should be made on the lowest possible level of governance), and listed threats to Gospel joy such as economic inequality and the warring among Christian denominations who fight fellow believers for power, prestige and economic security.

Offering more than criticism, Pope Francis went on to suggest four specific principles for building of people and society (222-237):

1) "Time is greater than space,” by which Pope Francis means we must not be in a hurry to get things done, but allow processes to develop; 

2) "Unity prevails over conflict,” which means it’s more important to build community than to win arguments;

3) "Realities are more important than ideas,” that is, it’s one thing to have an idea or proposition, and it’s something else (more important) to put the word into practice;

4) "The whole is greater than the part,” or “we need to pay attention to the global,” to broaden our horizons; we must pursue the common good.

All through his talk, Rohr peppered his quotations from Pope Francis with observations of his own, recalling, for example, Mother Teresa’s directive that we must “cut the string” on the good we do, and not do things for reward or recognition.

Other of Rohr’s insights worthy of reflection and discussion include:
1)      “Every expectation is a resentment waiting to happen.”
2)      Power is where evil hides; it usually does not look like evil; it charades as obedience or loyalty.
3)      God’s covenant is with the people; it is communal.
4)      Our failures bring us to God.
5)      The so-called “para-church” is developing, namely a number of congregations of various denominations working side by side, developing their gifts without criticizing or putting down the gifts of others.
6)      Church architecture can be a trap. Big cathedrals define a stage or era in the Church’s history, but they may in fact hold back the people who use them.
7)      If a pope undoes what Vatican II directs, it becomes clear to many that the Church in fact is a monarchy.

St. Francis of Assisi, Rohr said, was an anti-establishment person, confronting the mores of the Church and culture of his day. Pope Francis is doing something similar. Pope Francis is turning the world back to the Gospel, and it is significant that others beyond Catholics or even Christians are taking note.

A pope can be a prophet, and Jorge Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis) is proof.

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