We have just recalled the story of Saint Francis of Assisi. In front of the crucifix he heard the voice of Jesus saying to him: “Francis, go, rebuild my house”. The young Francis responded readily and generously to the Lord’s call to rebuild his house. But which house? Slowly but surely, Francis came to realize that it was not a question of repairing a stone building, but about doing his part for the life of the Church. It was a matter of being at the service of the Church, loving her and working to make the countenance of Christ shine ever more brightly in her. Pope Francis, World Youth Day Homily, July 28, 2013
C. L. note: How like this man, Pope Francis, to put into words the very thoughts that have crossed so many minds since his election. Informed Catholics know the story. We also know that St. Francis of Assisi really did change the way missionaries operated…in the end, that may be how Pope Francis sees himself, although with a lot more tools in his arsenal.
Also, St. Francis of Assisi is one of the big boys; one of the saints everyone knows and on the litany sung at every Easter Vigil and Ordination. Out of thousands of canonized saints, this is no small feat. His enduring legacy to the laity, other than poetry of prayer and poverty, is the Creche, or manger scene, that we put under Christmas trees.
For many people who are not Catholic, the story of St. Francis of Assisi is “extra Biblical” and something extraneous to the purity of what Christianity is supposed to be. Maybe so. But, for us it is the beginning of one man’s journey from spoiled brat to hermit to founder of the friars to what we would now call rock star or movie star status, and, eventually, sainthood – the formal declaration that a person is with God in eternal life. (We know this due to miracles performed in St. Francis of Assisi’s name.)
St. Francis was called to rebuild the church – and he did so in a way that no one at the time would have expected it to happen. He started over – sort of – but did not change any of the fundamentals.
St. Francis’ order, the Franciscans, (later, there was an off-shoot of the Capuchins. Sean Cardinal O’Malley of Boston is a Capuchin), were one of the first of the “orders” priests who actually do take a vow of poverty unlike diocesan priests, and go out into the world teaching the Gospel. In the larger scheme of things, they are called friars. They wear a simple cowl and a rope as a belt. Most that I’ve seen wear sandals (although, a few communities somehow get ahold of Birkenstocks). There is no doubting these men – and the women of the convents of the same traditions – are dedicated to living a simple life, in the name of Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior, and are not embarrassed to do so. What many do not know about the orders, at least the Franciscans, is that they are never in one place for more than a few years, unlike the early missionaries who went to one location and made themselves at home. In that way, there are no earthly roots, or as a tour guide in Assisi said of a beautiful English phrase “a rolling stone gathers no moss.” This was how Francis went about rebuilding the Church (with a little help from founders of other 13th century orders, St. Dominic Savio, St. Simon Stock, and a few others). The only attachment of his order is to God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the Church. As this was before John Calvin and Martin Luther, there was no question on authority.
St. Francis’ namesake, at least in service, Pope Francis, is now said to be doing the same sort of thing Francis did in the 13th century: rebuilding. To be honest, when it comes to REALLY rebuilding the Church, Blessed Pope John Paul II did the heavy lifting after a horribly tumultuous time in that the episcopacy was rebuilt under him with orthodox men, and consequently, the seminaries returned to actual Church teaching. That was no small accomplishment. Seriously. Yes, it took 26 years and the deaths of some influential heretics, but he did it. And with the episcopacy and the seminaries came the restoration of the exorcists and the permanent diaconate, which very much flew under the radar as rebuilding issues. He started with the leaders, the priests, and built something to last. (The Curia – that’s another matter, and part of the “clericalism” that Francis is set on changing.)
Rarely mentioned in the rebuilding, though, is the truly humble and quiet man between them, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, lover of sacred beauty inspired by God and small t tradition who was plain and simply hampered by an older and more frail body all while restoring what he could of the Mass. His pontificate was somewhat of a throwback, but for the restoration of what liberalism destroyed, it was a strengthening of the movement that is righting the liturgical time bomb mess that was deliberately put into place following Vatican II. The non-traditionalists didn’t like that, but this is a movement that really doesn’t need much pushing from above, and the popes understand that. (What no one wants to admit, is that Benedict was at JPII’s side as the latter’s portion of the rebuilding happened. Restoring the Mass was the next step.)
Pope Francis, it is said, is taking the Church in a new direction, changing things up, and making things more welcoming for the fallen away and potential converts.
Francis does take joy in everyday living, and that is contagious.
From the night of his election, when Francis eschewed the mozzetta and “red shoes” (slippers, actually, worn in memory of the blood of martyrs who have gone before us) in favor of the pair he was wearing that have not worn out, he has been hailed as a “breath of fresh air” and “just what the Church needs.”
Not that I would ever argue to the contrary, as the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways, but these human preferences, in Francis’ case very honest and wholesome, are not always what God has in mind when a pope is elected. I mean even JPII wore a mozzetta when he was introduced to the world with a name indicating that he would continue the policies of his immediate predecessor. From the time his name was announced, Francis has been hailed as a brilliant choice for the strength and orthodoxy he brings to the office. Francis was inspired when he said “yes” and took a name indicating that he would rebuild the Church in reminding the rest of us to get back to basics, and quit arguing over the little things such as whether or not a bishop should wear gloves when handling his Crozier.
Francis is from the Americas. Francis is a Jesuit. Francis didn’t like the papal apartments (built in a completely different time for security reasons. Before that, the Pope lived at St. John Lateran, the Cathedral of Rome. It’s not like the Pope’s residence is written in Canon Law. The Papal Apartments were necessary while the Church was illegal in Italy). Francis leads by example. Francis doesn’t pay much attention to schedules, doesn’t like the armor plated cars, and skips concerts of stuffy music. Therefore, Francis is going to be different.
Well, yes…and no. As archbishop of Buenes Aires, he was pretty much ignored as same old, same old, because his leadership adhered to Church teaching. Before his rescue by JPII and elevation to bishop, Jorge Bergoglio was marooned to teaching science rather than theology by his own order because he was too orthodox. He actually preached AGAINST liberation theology and modern tendencies. That should make any MSM proclamations of changing the Church in Francis’ name suspect. (The whole homosexual thing was taken out of context. What he actually said was straight up catechesis. But don’t expect the MSM to admit that)
Francis’ taste and preferences for liturgical music and celebration are ephemeral and simple – much to the dismay of those of us whose souls are fed by smells, bells, beautiful and inspired art and sublime polyphony. It really seems that he could care less when his predecessor was very attentive to such details (and very appreciative of good music. Good story from the Pallium Tour of 2009…some other time). That has traditional liturgy fans on edge, although, it seems for no reason. If Francis was going to suppress the Indult (Holy Mass in Latin) he would have done it by now. (Only one order, the Franciscans, have heard anything about it and that was to correct an error.) And we must remember that the Indult was restored not by Benedict, but John Paul II in 1984, although under JPII it was at the discretion of the local bishop. Under Benedict, it was made universal, meaning that any priest can say Mass in Latin anytime he wants (quite a number have started doing just that). That has not changed.
Francis is getting a lot of credit for the success of World Youth Day in Rio, when, really, the planning was done long before he was elected – so were all the travel arrangements from all over the world. The only reason why Benedict XVI was not there is because he can no longer fly. (When he was pope, the crowds were just as big.) The crowning achievement, yes, was a three million person MASS on Sunday, but still, that was worship and participation in the Sacrament of Eucharist, not just any old occasion, following the Sacrament of Penance and a Way of the Cross (aka Stations, Tradition since BEFORE the New Testament was written). The homily - straight up Jesuit challenge, complete with plenty of sports and Gospel references. St. Ignatius Loyola, soldier and athlete and founder of the order, would have been proud.
That the attendees of all World Youth Days claim the same thing – that it’s unforgettable, and that the Holy Spirit is present and felt – doesn’t seem to get the credit it should. That goes for the clergy as well – and in his address to the clergy of Brazil, Pope Francis made it clear that nothing has changed.
But, from the regular media, we don’t hear anything about that.
What we hear is that the man’s simplicity and austerity is a breath of fresh air. That he challenges the priesthood to live without the latest everything, and that we must pay attention to the poor. This pope is so much into this, that he walks among the poor, etc. He tells the kids at World Youth Day to shake up dioceses, and whatever else the headlines screamed. But, from a Catholic perspective, nothing new. From the viewpoint of people who only know American Jesuits not named Avery Cardinal Dulles, a great theologian and traditionalist in his own right, it’s a radical change – as a Jesuit, Pope Francis took a vow of poverty and acts on it. (The special position of the Jesuits in the Church as servants specificaly answering to the pope went to a lot of heads, even as there was an attempt to destroy that order from within.) Pope Francis is more or less acting as a missionary to the people of the Church Herself, and asking the rest of us to do the same.
For those of us who identify with the Prodigal Son’s older brother, it’s not an easy sell. What we know of “the missions” are always in foreign lands. At least, they used to be.
For whatever reason, there is a need to impose what non-Catholics think Catholics should be on us. There is a specific profile that the American media in particular attempts to impose on Catholic clergy, largely the pope. (That this same characterization is not considered for the liberals who are mostly now out of office is frustrating.) In Francis, the opportunity to mold that image to the narrative is available. Unless one looks closely. When reading or hearing his real words, seeing the photos of Francis hearing Confessions, that his first act as pope was to go to an ancient Icon of the Blessed Mother and say a Rosary, realization dawns – nothing has changed. But we need to get back to basics.
Jorge Bergoglio was chosen by God through the Holy Spirit to lead the Church for a reason, just as Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger were. After the disaster that followed Vatican II, they were needed to rebuild the episcopacy, the apostolate (priests), the sacraments, and Holy Mass; restore the traditional diaconate and the apprenticeship of the exorcists. Bergoglio is needed to remind us that what we have built on this earth is meant to be passed on, not gloried in. It is ephemeral – current – and does not last. We need to concentrate on what is important. Seek God, love one another and take care of the poor, as the missionary who came to my parish put it. That’s Francis’ message. The basics. That we use the format the Church gives us to do so, all the better.
There is a saying in the Catholic Church that every four hundred years or so the laity saves the Church. Pope Francis is calling us to do just that.
Other C.L. pieces on Church teaching and the papacy:
Categories: Catholic Church