The election of a Bishop of Rome is a world-wide media event, with reactions of Catholics and non-Catholics split between delight and dismay. The reception given to Pope Francis has been no different. Months after he took office, his unconventional style is still making waves in the media. Here a Catholic priest who is a chaplain to students at Oxford University gives some reflections.
There is a Spanish saying: “A río revuelto, ganancia de pescadores”; that is, “When the river becomes turbulent, it’s the fishermen’s gain”. True fishermen thrive in times of turbulence.
I was asking myself some time ago, long before the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Bishop of Rome, but as one deeply grateful for the Popes God has given us since 1846 (an arbitrary date, that in which Pope Pius IX was elected), “What would happen if God allowed us to have a Pope like Alexander VI, the Borgia Pope? Or one of those 10th Century Popes, like John XII?” The answer was simple: “I should love him all the same, because he is the Vicar of Christ, the Holy Father.”
In this context I would remember the debates in the Vatican Council – Vatican I, that is – on papal infallibility. The Council ended up decreeing in 1870 that the Pope is infallible when he teaches ex cathedra, that is, with the intention of declaring something to be believed with utter faith by all members of the Church, a pretty narrow definition.
And Catholics should also obey the Pope’s normal magisterium, even if in imparting it he makes no claim to infallibility. That normal teaching is magisterium, not so a Pope commenting on the weather or some item of the news.
The appropriate attitude for Catholics is to have a profound respect for the Pope, whoever he is, because he is their father in Christ and it is a commandment to honour one’s father and mother.
Some people (and not a few, I think it is fair to say) have been somewhat disconcerted by Pope Francis. Take his interview with Eugenio Scalfari, an avowed atheist, the editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. Pope Francis is quoted, for instance, as saying that a “Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us. I do not share this view and I’ll do everything I can to change it.” But the interview also elicited from Scalfari the confession that he had once been a daily communicant and, in the Second World War, had sought and been given asylum in a Jesuit house, where he had – under some duress – done the month long Exercises of St Ignatius. We would never have known that, if Francis had not “run the risk” of dialoguing with him.
Yes, Pope Francis is disconcerting some of his co-religionists. But didn’t Christ do the same? He shocked the Pharisees, failing to wash his hands in the prescribed fashion; or working miracles on the Sabbath; or welcoming publicans and sinners.
Pope Francis has called strongly for “ecological commitment”, not very popular perhaps among those who think all this talk about ecology is a bit “over the top”. But we should all be ecological. This beautiful world is of God’s making and the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that as his stewards, we have a sacred duty to protect it.
The Pope has refused to accept the logic of war. He asked for a world day of prayer and fasting on September 7 at a time when it seemed certain that Western powers would bomb Syria. The bombing did not take place… many of us think it was thanks to the Pope’s intervention.
And the African immigrants who died trying to get to the European island of Lampedusa: who if not Francis has called the world’s attention to this tragedy and its underlying causes? We human beings constitute one race, one family, and we cannot act in ways that deny that truth.
Catholics should love the Pope with all their heart, always, especially in times of turbulence, including times when it might seem to be the Pope himself who is stirring things up. Love does not mean flattery, or creating a bubble of admiration, or treating him like a sporting super star. The other day I heard a journalist addressing an athlete with, “You, perhaps the greatest long distance runner of all time…” Ridiculous flattery. I have always felt a bit embarrassed when suddenly, after a Pope is elected, books of his, previously virtually unknown, become worldwide best sellers. I can understand it in a media-driven world, but it does not seem a very mature approach.
I have read with joy and profit the new Pope’s encyclical on faith. Then critics will say, “Most of that was the work of Benedict”. I could reply: “That’s in Francis’ favour.” He has had the humility to make extensive use of that first draft for his encyclical, thus turning it into papal magisterium, not just an essay possibly gathering dust.
Are there things I disagree with in the way Popes do things? Yes. But I try not to make too much of them. Time and again I have found it was I, who did not have the full picture, and not the Holy Father, who got it wrong.
So, it’s prudent to try to keep our negative views quiet, and follow the Pope eagerly in everything which our conscience dictates is right. But neither should we shout too enthusiastically about all the things we approve of, lest our silence on other things be seen as criticism when in fact it should not be read as such.
And we should not forget that all of us, not just Peter, are called to be fishers of men. As I read a few days ago in one of the key documents of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium: “the laity – no matter who they are – have, as living members the vocation of applying to the building up of the Church (…) all the powers which they have received from the goodness of the Creator and from the grace of the Redeemer”. If we want to be Christians, we should try to direct all our powers to loving God and winning others to that love. As the commandment, given over 3,000 years ago to our elder brothers the Jews, tells us: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”. This applies to everyone.
One thing that the new Pope has in common with his predecessors is devotion to the Blessed Virgin. The day after his election he hastened to the church of St Mary Major to place his pontificate under her protection, perhaps bearing in mind Pope John Paul II’s injunction that the Marian dimension of the Church runs deeper than the Petrine. Francis’ love for Mary gives Catholics reassurance that they are in safe hands, even if they belong to a father who sometimes disconcerts.
We should love the Pope. As we should have done in the 18th Century had we been Jesuits when the Clement XIV suppressed the Society. Or Englishmen in the 16th when Pius V excommunicated our Queen.
The Catholic faith is a demanding faith, not one for the timorous and cowardly. It requires a deep sense of freedom and a willingness to be true, “come rain, come shine”.
One of the most attractive features of Pope Francis is his belief in the perennial youthfulness and relevance of the Church. He is brings with him a tremendous confidence that we have before us a new springtime for Christianity. His addresses to three million young people in July at the World Youth Day in Brazil were inspiring. They must go out and preach the faith to all and sundry, making “disciples of all nations”, he told them. That includes going to the “peripheries”, those far away from our normal environment.
It is up to us Catholics, if we wish, to listen to Francis and follow his call. These are stirring times. The rivers of the world are in full spate. Turbulent rivers call for steady, faith-filled fishermen and women. Let us fish courageously as Christians who trust in God.
Fr Andrew Byrne is chaplain of Grandpont House, Oxford, England.