Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Significance of the Name Francis

Foreign Policy has suggested 'it may be the church's ambiguous stance during Argentina's last dictatorship, which lasted from 1976 to 1983, that has done the most to damage the institution's credibility.' Numbers show a decline in church attendance and also in the level of loyalty commanded from the populace. Anecdotal evidence seems to bear these out. The new Pope Francis, formerly Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, may bear some of the blame. On his watch, the Church has reinforced a moral regime to which the monied elite can comfortably pay lip service, while receiving medical treatment in private clinics, on an impoverished population.

The FP article is one of the very few ominous clouds gathering in the afterglow of the papal inauguration. It reaches to draw its conclusions, perhaps not unfairly in certain respects, but one has to wonder about the time-frames within which it moves. Any change over the period of a decade or so is inconsequential in the life of an international body that thinks in terms of centuries, and with an eye on forever hereafter. As readers of Saint Augustine City of God discover, those who attempt to discern the signs of the times end constructing their own destructive self-fulfilling prophecies. The Church will survive. In its collective wisdom, it knows that it ought to prepare for a much longer term than the editors at FP appear to be able to fathom. Absolute numbers are important, but of relative concern. Catholic priorities are radically different; so also must be the metrics by which you measure its successes.

Most of the media coverage has been positively jubilant. Did you know Pope Francis declined most, if not all, the special treatment accorded a pope? He rode the bus back from his presentation before St. Peter's Square immediately following his election. He returned in person to pay his hotel bill. He has chosen to wear a simple silver ring instead of the usual gold. He even called the Argentine vendor who delivered the daily paper to cancel his subscription. The media has devoured these acts of humility, taking them as signs of things to come. The papacy will be less remote, more open, much more available. Cynics may point out this is all for show. They are at least partially right. It is exactly that: all for show. As leader of the Catholic faithful, the pope leads by example. In principle, he expects nothing from his spiritual constituency he would not do himself.

The pope cuts a perplexing figure across the contemporary political scene. He is the archetypal public servant: formerly the head of Christendom, called the servant of the servants of God. The papacy is not a career goal one sets for oneself to achieve, but is ideally given in trust. Conservative on the big social questions, at least in the public exercise of the authority of his office, though there has been some suggestion his private convictions lie elsewhere, his concern for the poor marks him as liberal in economic matters. Many will disagree with him on certain of his stances, but he cannot be faulted for being inconsistent. The battered, broken, and vulnerable bodies of his fellow human beings, from the fetus in the womb, the starving child, the cripple, to the very aged all to command his attention.

This pope is also, oddly enough, a Jesuit. Members of the order takes vows not to seek higher office. Which is why, though the order was founded by St. Ignatius in the 16th century, it has taken until the 21st century to see one of its members sit on the throne of St. Peter. The Jesuit ideal is on full display for the world to see in the pope's actions. The first taste the world had may have taken the form of a joke: 'May God forgive you for what you have done', he is reported to have said to his fellow cardinals during dinner following his presentation before St. Peters.

The new pope indicated his priorities by choosing the name Francis. If the humble demeanor is characteristically Jesuit, it also harkens back to Saint Francis of Assisi. The same sort of split personality those of us who are prone to divide the world between political conservatives and liberals find in Pope Francis' head, we also find here. The British Catholic controversialist G.K. Chesterton, in his book on the life of Saint Francis, noted 'Saint Francis anticipated all that is most liberal and sympathetic in the modern mood; the love of nature; the love of animals; the sense of social compassion; the sense of the spiritual dangers of prosperity and even of property.' None of these things, however, explain Saint Francis' theological outlook, his vow of chastity, the stern self-imposed moral regime to which, by most accounts, he joyfully submitted. Nor do they make the slightest sense alongside the famous poem The Canticle of the Sun, which affirms which makes all things, not just human beings, equally children of the Creator.

Let's not forget that Pope Francis follows Saint Francis in his efforts to reach out to members of other faith traditions, including those not sheltered beneath the broad umbrella of Christianity.

Here is a portion of the very first homily delivered before St. Peter's Square:
The vocation of being a "protector", however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!
Whenever human beings fail to live up to this responsibility, whenever we fail to care for creation and for our brothers and sisters, the way is opened to destruction and hearts are hardened.
The Franciscan affirmation of the brotherhood of all God's creatures, e.g. Brother Sun and Sister Moon from the Canticle, can be heard between the lines. The points where the homily departs from the poem mark the modernity of the Pope Francis' message:
-- a hard distinction drawn between humanity and the rest of the world,
-- an emphasis placed on protecting creation beyond simply affirming solidarity with it, and
-- singling out the familial social configuration for mention.
Presumably the last point would have never crossed St. Francis' mind.

While the rest of us look on and wonder about the future of the Catholic Church and what declining numbers might mean, the Pope measures the success of his ministry on very different terms. Have we served our fellow human beings as we ought? is the question on his mind. If yes, redouble our efforts. If no, start over and do it right.

The nature of the 'ought' is going to be a point of contention, both with those inside and outside the Church. No doubt. But let's not misunderstand what the pope is signalling here. We crunch our numbers, pursue our pet peeves in that corner of the universe for which we claim a certain amount of expertise, or hum and haw about this or that narrow-minded preoccupation. But Francis is playing the very, very long game. Don't be deceived by his affable smile; it's owner is the shrewdest of operators.

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