Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Pope Francis as Comforting and Afflicting Prophet

It is commonly held that the cardinal electors who chose Jorge Bergoglio to be the new pope were giving him the mandate to reform the Church, with iummediate attention to the Curia. Pope Francis took on that task, notably in forming his “Group of Nine,” cardinals from around the world who form an advisory (and investigative) panel to help him in his role as leader of the Catholic Church.

His efforts to reform the Curia include not simply structural changes but spiritual conversion as well. He famously reminded the curial  staff  just before Christmas in 2014 that they must not think of themselves as “lords of the manor” but as servants, and he went on to an examination of conscience listing 15 temptations (he called them “la malattia” or “the disease’) which they should avoid now and in the future.

Reform of the Curia is not complete. There is a staying power in the curial structure that resists change. Some critics of the Curia during the Second Vatican Council said that bureaucrats had a not-so-secret refrain among themselves: “Councils come and go, popes die, but the Curia goes on!”  Reform of the Vatican Bank, however, with significant structural changes appears imminent.

From the start of his papacy, however, Pope Francis has been as much concerned about reform of the world as he is about reform of  the Vatican and the Church at large. He consistently urges Christians to go out to the peripheries –to places on the margins of society, to people suffering from conflicted lives and broken hearts.

His first official journey was to Lampadusa, the small Sicilian island which has become the port of entry for refugees fleeing poverty and political turmoil in Africa. Thousands of these migrants have drowned  as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean in over-crowded boats and small rafts. In a special Mass on the island Pope Francis welcomed the migrants, mourned those who have died in their attempt to improve their lives, thanked those who were caring for the refugees, and warned the world at large about “the globalization of indifference.”  He also asked pardon for "those, whose decisions at a global level have created the conditions which have led us to this drama."

Pope Francis’ remarks about climate and economy have generated significant critical responses. For example, radio’s talk show guru Rush Limbaugh has judged Pope Francis to be guilty of Marxism because of the pope’s condemnation of  “unfettered capitalism.” El Rushbo  labeled as “communism” Pope Francis’ concern about man-made global warming. He also took offense at the pope’s remark that “if Christians don't dig deep and generously open their wallets, they do not have genuine faith.”

Retracing his steps Limbaugh did admit, “Now, maybe this is not communism, I don't know, but it's scary, and it's a little out there.  Remember what all this is related to is climate change, folks.  Every bit of this is related to climate change.”  Then, unable to let go of it, he added, “A man of religion, the Vicar of Christ, seems to have fallen in with the communist way of doing things: Controlling mankind through command-and-control governments backed by police or military power. This is what the pope is essentially calling for.  The problem is, human beings suffer under collectivist or communist regimes.  They do not prosper.”

Clearly Pope Francis has irritated one of America’s staunchest defenders of capitalism, one of its most out-spoken critics of made-made climate change. Pope Francis has done what he intended; he or more accurately his message has challenged the mindset of those who are comfortable in their convictions and who resent their values being questioned.

Pope Francis is reaching out to the world. He is exercising the pope’s role as a prophet. He is coming to the defense of those who are impoverished, who are victims of injustice, who do not have protection of their God-given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I do not know whether the pope is right in his judgment about global warming; I doubt that capitalism is in itself an evil economic system.  But I do believe that Pope Francis looks at the world at large and is conscious of environmental and economic conditions far different from and more depraved than what we see and experience in our part of the world.

The role of a prophet, it is said, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  Pope Francis’ namesake did an admirable job of doing that very thing. The little friar of Assisi challenged the habits of society in celebrating Christmas when he said, “If I could speak to the emperor I would ask that a general law be made that all who can should scatter corn and grain along the roads so that the birds might have an abundance of food on the day of such great solemnity, especially our sisters the larks” (Celano, II, 200).

I suspect Francis of Assisi might be labeled a Marxist for suggesting that when the weather was cold he would ask a rich man to give him a cloak, and would tell him, “I  will accept this from you with this understanding, that you do not expect ever to have it back again.” And then, when Francis met a poor man, he would clothe him with what he had received with such joy and gladness (Celano, I, 76).

When we are unaware of the conditions in which some people must live we are not likely to feel compassion for them or want to change the structures that cause their misery. For example, many of us think of human trafficking as a problem in other parts of the world, but when we learn that more than 17,500 are trafficked in the United States every year (stats from US Department of Justice), then we may become concerned enough to do something about this modern form of slavery (trading people for forced labor or prostitution) happening especially in California and Texas.

If we learn that more than 10% of the US population lives in poverty, we may blame them for laziness, but when we encounter that poverty in the inner city homeless or the Appalachian shack dwellers, we may respond differently.

As I see it, Pope Francis is engaged in raising consciousness. I can always find arguments to temper my response. I know from being a pastor in a poor neighborhood that some of the poor play the game, that some are unequivocally lazy, that some take advantage of the government dole or the generosity of donors. I also know that there are many others who through bad choices or no-fault of their own are truly poor –economically, psychologically, mentally, spiritually.

I found adults who were abused as children and that abuse has left a permanent scar. I found people struggling to make things better for themselves, but found the bureaucracy of the welfare system a nightmare of forms, appointments, and regulations. (You have an appointment for 8 am, you do not have a car and must take the bus, you have two young children who need to board the school bus at 8:30 am –What do you do about the kids? What do you do if the bus route doesn’t go where you need to be? What do you do if you are late and you need to re-schedule?)

Pope Francis has undertaken the role of prophet. In that role he will irritate some, provide comfort for those in need, inform those who never thought of a given situation, and touch people of good will. Whether you believe in global warming or not, his message urges care for the environment –which is a good thing. Whether or not you buy his criticism of capitalism, his message urges you to be careful not to put money over people --which is a good thing.

On his return flight from Latin America, Pope Francis said he is aware of the negative reaction his comments about capital;ism have generated in the United States, and he agreed that he must listen to his critics and enter into dialogue with them. "If I don't dialogue with those who criticize," he explained, " then I have no right to express an opinion." He said he intends to study these criticisms before his visit to the United States and Cuba in September in order to prepare for the dialogue.

All Christians are called by their baptism to share in Christ’s role of being priest, prophet and servant leader. Pope Francis is modeling the Christian’s response. Right now he is emphasizing the prophetic role. The afflicted are being comforted, the comfortable are being afflicted. That’s what happens when prophets come on the scene.

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