Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Gentle Revolution of Pope Francis

Here is my piece on Pope Francis as it appeared in today's Wall Street Journal:

And here is the longer, unedited version: 

The last twelve months has featured unrelenting coverage of his tiny car, his forsaking of the Papal palace, his gentle touch and his controversial (if artfully edited) sound bytes. Far less attention has been paid to the deep spiritual and temporal marks Pope Francis has left on the church during his first year as pontiff—and what could lie ahead.

Overall, Pope Francis has coined a new type of encyclical (a document of papal teaching)-- the encyclical of the image. Among the 85 % of Catholics who hold a favorable view of Francis in a recent Pew survey, one wonders how many have read a complete homily or watched the pope for more than a minute and a half on a nightly newscast. My guess is: darn few. But they have absorbed his message via the images he conveys. The warm embrace of the severely disfigured man or the children with disabilities. The washing of the Muslim girl’s feet on Holy Thursday. Dining with the homeless and laughing with the Harley riders surrounded by their hogs. What do these captured moments convey? Here is a church of charity and mercy—a joyous “field hospital” for sinners. Welcome home. Francis has made the world feel good about Catholicism again. Given the tumult of recent years, this is no small accomplishment. Like Blessed John Paul the Second before him, Francis not only understands the power of images, but has the ability to deploy them when necessary.

Pope Francis is no less expert at drawing media attention with his public utterances. The provocative, if oblique, straight talk has generated global headlines, perhaps by design. Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison Wisconsin suggested to me months ago that the Pope might just be “a crafty old Jesuit… who is using the press to elicit a discussion about issues at a very serious level.”

From his comments on divorced and remarried Catholics to civil unions; each time the pope has thrown a verbal grenade, clarification, debate, and a healthy discussion has followed. In retrospect, despite the temporary agita experienced by some (including my own), the pope’s outspokenness has been a net positive. Francis made everyone sit up and take notice, while creating new public space to examine Church teachings. The only possible drawback is the media fixation with stray papal comments like those on economic theories or the Pope’s unwillingness to judge gay priests. The over the top attention to these selective quotes has blotted out coverage of the crucial and oft-mentioned themes of this pontificate. Two particularly stand out.

The Pope has repeatedly, almost weekly, decried what he calls our “throw away culture, according to which everything can be discarded.” This climate has led to a rampant disregard for the elderly, the pope charges, endless consumerism, an economy that ignores the poor, and the disposal of innocent human life. His disgust of the throw away culture and all it implies will continue to be a central complaint of this pontificate. Then there is Satan.

During his very first homily in the Sistine Chapel, Pope Francis said, “He who doesn’t pray to the Lord prays to the devil.” Over these many months he has spoken of the devil as a person, a distinctive being bent on man’s destruction. Francis credits the devil with Christian persecutions from Christ’s time to the present. On May 4th he said, “With the prince of this world, you can’t have dialogue. Let this be clear.” And just this last weekend he urged those gathered in St. Peter’s Square, “Let us renounce Satan and all his works and seductions because he is a seducer…” His full throated warnings about Satan are rarely covered, but they reveal a spiritual understanding that informs all he does, including the reform that consumes his days.

Francis’ mandate coming out of the conclave was to reform the Church—particularly the curia and the administrative ways of Rome. Step by step he is making good on that mandate. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a member of the Pope’s cabinet of eight Cardinal consulters says the Pope wishes to create “a central government at the service of the universal church…and he is worried about the spiritual care of the people working in the curia.” Francis knows that any reform must start in the heart of his collaborators or all the administrative tinkering in the world will never succeed. He has called out “careerism” in the clergy and gone so far as to describe the Vatican court as the “leprosy of the papacy.” He has abolished the honorific title of “monsignor” and routinely encourages his co-workers to go out to the people on the periphery, to those who have been forgotten. Just so they don’t forget, he models that behavior at his weekly audiences and during parish visits.

Substantively, the Pope has made one major change that has set teeth a chattering in Vatican offices. Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, a former rugby player not adverse to public combat, has been appointed to lead the newly formed Secretariat for the Economy. This new body will have dominion over all the financial, economic, and administrative affairs of the Vatican. The office seems to occupy the same plane of power as the Secretariat of State, marking a critical change at the very heart of the Holy See’s organizational structure. To execute it, Francis could not have chosen a churchman better versed in economics, the culture, or faith than Cardinal Pell. I am told it is but the first of many such bold moves.

As Pope Francis begins his second year, only a madman would forecast where this unpredictable pontiff is headed. But it is a safe to assume that pastoral mercy, a preferential option for the forgotten, and an aversion to rigidity will distinguish the days to come—to say nothing of that tiny Ford Focus.