Francis: pope of paradox

Francis: pope of paradox

Damian Wyld

As one of my friends noted during the recent sede vacante period, seeking intelligent media analysis of the pending papal conclave was akin to asking the Amish for tech support.

So it is with the new pope. Media commentators, thrown off at first by the fact that none of their 'frontrunners' had been elected, wasted no time in trying to pigeon-hole Pope Francis. Liberal, progressive, conservative, moderate conservative, social justice advocate: the labels flew thick and fast. Many media outlets conveniently ignored the fact that the few statements of Pope Francis even available at that time in English were soundly Catholic.

Whether it was his comments on life issues or marriage (the latter earning him a public rebuke from the Argentine Government) the then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio had not shied away from publicly expounding Catholic teaching.

The first few weeks of the new papacy have proven how limiting and pointless such labels are. Perhaps more than most men, Pope Francis seems to defy any attempt at categorisation, whether in terms of his liturgical preferences, his daily routines or some of the more interesting anecdotes to have circulated.

Benedict's reign

To be fair to the media, however, they have not been alone in their frenzied descriptions of the Holy Father. Many Catholics have also viewed the new pope's every move, as though he were a weathervane for some new liberal or conservative current flowing through Rome. And to be even fairer, one can appreciate the genuine concerns of many faithful Catholics who have witnessed something unknown in modern times: the abdication of a pope.

In his eight-year reign, Benedict XVI achieved an incredible amount: the establishment of the Anglican Ordinariate, the opening of dialogue with the various Orthodox churches, removal of restrictions on the Traditional Latin Mass and sacraments, doctrinal talks with the Society of St Pius X, and countless new appointments of bishops and cardinals to name but a few.

He even found the time to write voluminous books and successfully scuttle an anti-family Italian referendum question – by suggesting Catholics stay home and void the results by low turnout. Benedict's was a relatively brief but fruitful pontificate, notwithstanding malicious attempts to tar him personally with the brush of sex abuse cases.

Given this background, one can readily understand why some are hesitant to embrace a newcomer. They are also possibly scratching their heads at some of the Pope's doings.

Riding in open top vehicles, catching the bus, walking between appointments and shaking hands with the public through perimeter fences, Francis must surely be causing Vatican security sleepless nights, if not raising the eyebrows of those used to a slightly different papal deportment. At the time of writing, Pope Francis had still not moved into the papal apartments of the Apostolic Palace, preferring instead to remain in the Vatican accommodation provided for cardinals during the conclave.

Then there is the Pope's interpretation of the rubrics. Answers were quickly provided as to why, on Maundy Thursday, those having their feet washed by the Holy Father were not all men, nor even Catholic. It was proffered that, coming from a joint male/female prison complex, the inmates couldn't be separated. There was also a suggestion that the rubrics should not bind the Pope, particularly when the modern rite of the washing of the feet only dates from the 1950s.

However, putting aside the obvious reply about the origin of the rite, mirroring Our Lord's choice of disciples, a poignant observation was also made regarding general liturgical standards. If the Mass and sacraments are to be celebrated with dignity and by the book, ran the line, can we not expect example from above?

While wearing the Fisherman's Ring is not a popularity contest, Pope Francis will no doubt wish to reassure the faithful that his desire for a reign marked by the simplicity and humility of his namesake will not affect his ability to teach and govern a ship in turbulent waters.

On that front, Francis has numerous challenges before him. Greater-than-usual attention was paid to the state of the Vatican bureaucracy following the so-called 'Vatileaks' scandal, and then following Pope Benedict's abdication. The media is largely, though not solely, responsible for this attention – cardinals too voiced frustration ahead of the conclave – putting a long-running problem squarely in the spotlight. Pope Francis' key appointments, yet to be made at the time of printing, will possibly signal changes in this respect.

Sexual abuse

Also confronting the Pope is the blight of sexual abuse and the various responses that have taken or will take place to it world-wide. Australians would be well aware that our own Royal Commission into sexual abuse, both within private organisations and public agencies, is now underway. While absolutely necessary and deserving of full support, the possibility exists that, as in Ireland and other jurisdictions, the Church will be singled out for suggested treatment ranging from loss of charitable status to assaults on the seal of confession.

Lastly, there is also the urgent need to restore a Church largely decaying in the Western world. The Pope has spoken on this subject and is no stranger to it himself, with his native Latin American lands experiencing large-scale abandonment of Catholicism in recent years, either for other faiths or no faith.

The new Pope is likely to prove a man of paradox, but one who seems acutely aware of the need to emulate his patron: "Francis, rebuild my Church."

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