Pope Francis: one year on
By Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP, Catholic Outlook April 2014
It’s trite to say that Pope Francis has been something of a ‘phenomenon’ since his election 12 months ago.
He has garnered enormous attention and has been regularly contrasted with his predecessor by commentators, mostly very favourably.
I think these juxtapositions have been over-stated and are based on mythologies about both popes.
Certainly, there are differences – of personality, style, impact. But they share the one faith, love the same God, and have sought always to be “servants of the servants” of the Lord.
The mythical Benedict was liturgically pompous, doctrinally rigid and ecclesially divisive; he cared little about clerical abuse and was a PR disaster.
The mythical Francis doesn’t give a hoot for old doctrines and customs, takes his lead from the New York Times, cares about people and so is a spiritual superstar.
The real Benedict was a humble, sweet-natured gentleman, perhaps the greatest theologian to sit in the chair of Peter for a millennium, and was the one who set the Church on a course of major reform with respect to child abuse, including laicising many priests and retiring many bishops.
The real Francis is building on Benedict’s legacy but brings his ebullient personality and steely determination to those tasks of evangelisation and reform.
What both have said, again and again, is that they only want to be loyal sons of the Church who draw people closer to the mercy of God.
Undoubtedly there is a providence in Francis’ popular reception. His personality, humble gestures, and accessible language have helped open up new possibilities of conversation and commitment, even with people previously at quite some distance.
If it lasts, the ‘Francis effect’ will be a real boon for advancing the new evangelisation agenda that Francis and Benedict received from John Paul II and Paul VI.
In his recent interview with Corriere della Sera, the Pope balked at the media making him into a spiritual “superman” and distanced himself from “ideological interpretations” of his ministry.
Though the left-right, progressive-conservative categories of politics have never worked well to describe Church people, Francis may well be judged by history to have been more ‘conservative’ than Benedict on many matters.
Francis’ actual teaching so far – as opposed to what has been selectively reported – has often focussed on the temptations common for the human heart (ambition, vainglory, greed, envy …) and the resulting vices (gossip, self-aggrandisement, consumerism, division …).
He has dared attribute much of this to the devil and personal sinfulness; and he has repeatedly exhorted people to return to their parishes and make a good Confession.
Not very radical stuff this – except in the true sense of radical that is “getting to the root of things”.
Like Benedict, Francis says he wants a broader role for women in the Church. But he has also said he thinks women as clergy, including as cardinals (since cardinals are clergy of Rome), are impossible in the Catholic Church.
There will be no papal seal of approval for the fetishes of modernity such as abortion and same-sex ‘marriage’. He says the ‘throw-away society’ that unhesitatingly disposes of unborn babies and ‘burdensome’ old people is barbaric rather than progressive.
If a Southern Hemisphere pope prefers to focus at times on matters other than ‘the culture wars’ of Western societies, that should come as no surprise.
If he is more spontaneous in his speech and a bit ‘maverick’ with respect to protocol, this is hardly revolutionary. Popes have, in fact, worn many different colours of shoes!
The jury of history is still out on what his pontificate will mean for the Church.
One area in which Pope Francis has moved decisively is in government and administration. That’s not sexy enough to gain much media attention and doesn’t easily fit the hippie image.
Hearing the voice of the cardinal-electors in conclave as the Spirit speaking to the Church, he has created “the Group of Eight” cardinals to advise him regularly on various matters and created the new Secretariat of Economy, paralleling the Secretariat of State.
Far more than a financial auditor, this body will be a whole new coordinating structure for the economic and administrative affairs of the Holy See and the Vatican State. The goal: to ensure the people and structures in the Vatican serve the mission of the Pontiff.
Common amongst the myths about the Catholic Church is that it’s run by a luxuriously resourced operation called ‘the Vatican’. But how big is the Vatican really? When John XXIII was asked “How many people work in the Vatican?” he is supposed to have answered “About half”.
Actually, there are many devoted and hard-working people in the curia. They have to assist the Pope to sanctify, govern and teach 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide, to run a small country with diplomatic missions to most other countries, to provide the biggest network of education, healthcare and welfare services in the world, and to maintain an active presence at the UN and on many other fronts. Yet the Vatican has fewer employees than the Diocese of Parramatta!
In a world in which Australia’s CommBank announces a half-year profit of more than $4000 million, the Vatican’s half-year budget of $150 million (with no profit) is not extravagant.
The new Vatican Secretariat will have a task of stretching very limited personnel and resources much further in service of the mission of Pope Francis.
What is clear one year on, however, is that our new pope Francis has the same mission all his predecessors received from Christ: to be bedrock of the Church’s faith, to confirm and unify believers, to ‘bind and loose’ by teaching and governing, and to do all this so that Christ continues to bring Good News to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind-hearted, and health to the sick of body or spirit.
We pray long life and health for him – and the Holy Spirit’s guidance – in that great mission.Originally published in the ABC’s Religion & Ethics section, ‘The Francis Phenomenon, or Media Infatuation? Reflections on the Anniversary of a Pontificate’ by Scott Stephens et al, 13 March 2014
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