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THE TENSIONS OF A PONTIFICATE

Formally opening Synod-2019 at Mass in the Papal Basilica of St. Peter on October 6, Pope Francis preached a moving homily focused on the nature of the episcopate, during which he drew heavily on the second reading assigned for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday of the Year (2 Timothy 1:6–8, 13–14). Some excerpts from the homily are worth pondering in themselves; they also set the stage for a reflection on the pontificate and the tensions within it.

We are bishops because we have received a gift of God. We did not sign an agreement; we were not handed an employment contract. Rather, hands were laid on our heads so that we in turn might be hands raised to intercede before the Father, helping hands extended to our brothers and sisters. We received a gift so that we might become a gift. Gifts are not bought, traded, or sold; they are received and given away. If we hold on to them, if we make ourselves the center and not the gift we have received, we become bureaucrats, not shepherds. We turn the gift into a job and its gratuitousness vanishes. We end up serving ourselves and using the Church. To be faithful to our calling, our mission, Saint Paul reminds us that our gift has to be rekindled. The verb he uses in the original text . . . means stoking a fire (anazopyrein). The gift we have received is a fire, a burning love for God and for our brothers and sisters. A fire does not burn by itself; it has to be fed or else it dies; it turns into ashes. If everything continues as it was, if we spend our days content that “this is the way things have always been done,” then the gift vanishes, smothered by the ashes of fear and concern for defending the status quo . . . the Church is always on the move, always going out and never withdrawn into itself. Jesus did not come to bring a gentle breeze but to light a fire on the earth.

The fire that rekindles the gift is the Holy Spirit. So Saint Paul goes on to say . . . “God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and prudence. . . . ” What is this prudence of the Spirit? As the Catechism teaches, prudence “is not to be confused with timidity or fear”; rather, it is “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.”

Fidelity to the newness of the Spirit is a grace that we must ask for in prayer. May the Spirit, who makes all things new, give us his own daring prudence, may he inspire our Synod to renew the paths of the Church in Amazonia, so that the fire of mission will continue to burn.

The proclamation of the Gospel is the chief criterion of the Church’s life, it is her mission, her identity . . . [for the] liberating power of the Gospel [is] the Church’s caress of love.

It would be a hard heart indeed that was not moved by those evangelically passionate words.

Here, it seemed, spoke the Jorge Mario Bergoglio who was a principal architect of the 2007 Aparecida Document of the Latin American bishops, which called the Church on the world’s most demographically Catholic continent to “a deep and profound rethinking of its mission . . . out of a personal and community encounter with Jesus Christ that raises up disciples and missionaries.” Here, it seemed, spoke the Pope Francis who, in the 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), challenged all of Catholicism to follow the vision of Aparecida and become a Church “permanently in mission,” a Church composed of “missionary disciples,” a Church in which every Catholic understood himself or herself to have received a missionary mandate at baptism, a Church in which every Catholic knew that “mission territory” is everywhere. Here, it seemed, was a Bishop of Rome committed to extending the New Evangelization proclaimed by St. John Paul II as the Catholic Church’s grand strategy for the twenty-first century and third millennium of Christian history in the apostolic letter closing the Great Jubilee of 2000, Novo Millennio Ineunte (Entering the New Millennium).

Yet even amid gratitude for the pope’s lifting up this vision of a Church energized by evangelical zeal, one could not help but remember events of the past six and a half years that cast a different light on this pontificate: the appointment of manifestly bureaucratic men to high office, while bishops with solid evangelical records have been marginalized and deplored as “rigid”; the failure to thoroughly clean out the Augean stables of Vatican finance; the bullying and manipulation of synods by the synod general secretariat; the constant chastisement of priests; the interference with local churches’ efforts to get to grips with the crisis of clerical sexual abuse, the failure to deal with that crisis in other locales, and the metastasis of the crisis within the Vatican itself; the cartoon depiction of critics who have respectfully questioned aspects of the pontificate; the lack of attention to pastoral initiatives that successfully embody the New Evangelization; the ambiguity of teaching, not least on settled moral questions; the tolerance of views that are beyond the pale of orthodoxy; the vandalism wrought on distinguished institutions of Catholic high learning like the once-vibrant John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family; the unevangelical deal-making with major-league tyrants in China; the softness toward minor-league, but still lethal, tyrannies in Latin America; the absolutism on migrants (which, as one senior European diplomat observed two years ago, has shrunk the space on which a reasonable political accommodation could have been reached); the seeming papal endorsement of forms of environmentalism that breathe the spirit of pantheism rather than the spirit of Genesis and the divine injunction that human beings must be the stewards of Creation; the curious (to put it gently) view of other world religions in the economy of salvation; the poisonous atmosphere within the Vatican, where senior figures who speak their minds suffer not only disfavor, but public humiliation.

At World Youth Day-2013 in Brazil, Pope Francis urged young Catholics to “make a mess”—which, interpreted benignly, was a challenge to try new pastoral initiatives and fresh methods of evangelization without fear of occasional failure. And that is no bad challenge to everyone. There is, and there always should be, a holy restlessness about our work as missionary disciples; and as no one has all the answers to the demands of evangelization in an increasingly fractious postmodern world (much less in Stone Age societies like those of Amazonia), it is imperative that Catholics try new ways and means to share the gift we have been given: the gift of faith and friendship with Jesus Christ, who is the answer to the question that is every human life. But surely there is a difference between making a mess—in the sense of trying, failing, and learning from failure in order to try again—and fostering a mess. Fostering messes would not seem to be part of the job description of the Office of Peter as authoritatively defined in Pastor Aeternus (the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ) and Lumen Gentium (the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church).

And this is precisely what a dynamic, evangelically vibrant African archbishop worried about in recent conversation: the mess of ambiguity that has been fostered during this pontificate. Moreover, his concerns were not merely theoretical. “We don’t know how to answer our faithful anymore,” he said, when they ask questions about the Catholic understanding of the permanence of marriage, or the pastoral care of persons experiencing same-sex attraction, or the gift of celibacy in the priesthood. This bishop—and it is another sad reflection on the present moment that even the daring prudence commended by Pope Francis in his October 6 homily precludes citing him by name—leads a local Church composed largely of first- and second-generation Christians, in a Third World setting where the cultural preoccupations and intellectual gyrations of First World theologians have no traction. His are people of a simple but vibrant faith, who have been attracted to Catholicism because they discovered in the gospel a true liberation from what they perceive as the bondage of pagan ways: whether those be pagan attitudes toward the spiritual life, toward women, or toward marriage. These Catholics are living a New Testament experience of faith, and, the archbishop said, they are scandalized by what strike them as betrayals of the truths they have embraced as beautiful, empowering, and liberating.

These new Christians, as well as the living parts of the world Church in the West, are also disturbed and dispirited by a Catholicism that increasingly presents itself, in its Roman face, as a global NGO whose primary concerns are political rather than spiritual: a Vatican that seems more attuned to Greta Thunberg than Catherine of Siena. That particular tension in the current pontificate is embodied in two bronze sculptures a few hundred yards away from each other in Rome.

The first is the newest addition to the decoration of St. Peter’s Square: a massive sculpture of a small boat packed to the gunwales with refugees and migrants, which has been erected behind a wooden barrier on the left side of the piazza as the visitor or pilgrim faces the basilica. The other, at the bottom of the Via della Conciliazione, is just inside the door of the oratory known as L’Annunziatina: St. Mary of the Annunciation. It’s a large bronze depiction of St. Michael the Archangel giving a tonsillectomy to Satan, who is pinned beneath the angel’s feet. This is the city of Bernini and Michelangelo, so the local sculptural standard is a very high one. By modern standards, though, both these compositions are rather fine, in that they depict recognizable characters and are well-executed. They do suggest, however, quite different sensibilities.

There are no discernible religious motifs in the sculpture of the boat people in the Square: The entire composition is far more a political statement than a religious one, and there is nothing in the sculpture itself that invites a gospel-centered reflection on the moral and spiritual demands of solidarity. That is certainly not the case with the sculpture in L’Annunziatina, whose custodians have driven home the religious message of the composition by posting at the entrance of the oratory Pope Leo XIII’s famous prayer: St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world, seeking the ruin of souls.

Two sculptures. Two sensibilities. Two ecclesiastical visions, one might suggest.

These tensions in the pontificate of Pope Francis will be fully on display as Synod-2019 continues its work over the next three weeks. This display will undoubtedly cause further distress in some Catholic quarters. That distress should, however, be tempered, if not assuaged, by a recognition that Synod-2019 is going to make unmistakably clear the nature of the issues facing the world Church in the immediate future. The gravity of those issues—and the choices they pose—can no longer be denied. They can only be faced, with both courage and charity, in the firm conviction that, as we used to say in Latin, Veritas vos liberabit—“The truth will set you free” (John 8:32). 

 —George Weigel

Photo by Casa Rosada via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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