Talk of hitting the ground running, this is one pope that has. And earned a lot of goodwill among Catholics in the process. And given Catholicism a lease on life in the process.
His latest move, one that has met with wide approval among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, among faithful and faithless alike, has been to meet with retired Pope Benedict XVI. With the same humility and simplicity he has shown throughout his life, indeed since he stepped into the Shoes of the Fisherman, he continued to defer to his predecessor, according him pride of place in their meeting. He refused to take the papal kneeler when they entered Castel Gandolfo to pray, instead kneeling side by side with Benedict on a longer pew. “We are brothers,” he said. A much nicer way of saying, “We are equals.”
The meeting, brief as it was, was not without its symbolic value. Which must suggest that the new Pope may be humble, but he is also savvy in the ways of the world. He may do things out of conviction but he is also aware of the power of image. The meeting was redolent with meaning: the coming together of the old and the new, indeed of the Old Testament and the New Testament, the acknowledgment of the past but also a moving away from the past.
Pope Francis signaled that moving away from the past from Day One of his papacy, far more by what he did than what he said. He refused to wear the opulent robes of the pontiff, a symbol more of earthly power than of heavenly one, opting instead for simple black shoes and simple clothing. He insisted as well on paying his own hotel bill. An example that Filipino bishops and archbishops, with the luminous exception of Chito Tagle who shares in Pope Francis’ spirit, would do well to emulate.
As it is, what Francis has said, quite apart from what he has done, is of no small moment either. He signaled a moving away from Benedict in words with his first homily during his installation Mass. “I want to ask you to walk together, and take care of one another,” he said. The Pope is there to protect all of humanity, “but especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.”
That didn’t endear him to the Opus Dei types in the Church who figure he’s overthrowing the Vatican they have always known. That didn’t endear him to the Latin American elites who have always counted on an archconservative Vatican to keep them in power. And that didn’t endear him to the American Right which thinks that any talk about helping the poor must be communistic. (Well, they actually think Barack Obama is a card-carrying socialist because of Obamacare.) All of whom know in light of his record that he does what he says, he practices what he preaches. He has walked with the poor, talked with the poor, dreamed of a better life for and with the poor.
I am excited about this new Pope. Not least because the directions he has taken have no small amount of implications for us, or our local Catholic Church which has drawn strength and sustenance over the last 10 years or so from the old, and decrepit (in body and soul), Benedict. The way I see it, despite the tirades against him by more radical circles, Francis has done a couple of things that spell renewal for the faith he represents.
The first is that while he has moved away from Benedict, he has not moved away from tradition. In fact he has moved back to tradition. The tradition of its moving force, its inspiration, having been born in a manger and having lived his life congregating with fishermen, at least one known prostitute, and the lepers, the outcasts and at least, too, one person known to be dead. In fact, it was Francis’ predecessors who had moved away from that tradition, turning the Shoes of the Fisherman into the Shoes of the Prince. Simple black shoes are the next best thing to sandals that smell of the sea.
While at this, Steven Spielberg had a nice insight into it in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” when the villain died from imagining that the Cup of the Last Supper was the princely-looking one. It was in fact the crudest one. True enough, not all that glitters is gold.
The second is that he has brought spirituality back to religion and not the other way around. At the very least, that is seen in his willingness to dialogue with other faiths and secular groups, which makes him not unlike Pope John Paul II in that respect. Where religion is concerned with doctrine and dogma, spirituality is concerned with interiority and substance. Other faiths are capable of profound spirituality, too, even nonbelievers are capable of profound religiosity, too. But then, wasn’t it Christ who said, “Not all who say ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of God?”
At the very most, that is seen in his efforts to bring morality back to an earthly plane. He is not unlike Chito Tagle in that respect—you want to say Cardinal Tagle but the guy’s own simplicity and humility almost forbids it—whose sense of social justice, quite apart from divine justice, is marvelously keen. Indeed, who finds the one to be inseparable from the other. Although both hold on to the traditional doctrine proscribing contraception, gay marriage and women priests, both say that should not be the overriding concern of the Church. Both say that what should be is being able to listen to the flock, being able to hear the flock. Indeed, what should be is being able to see the poor, being able to help the poor. You can’t get more spiritual than that, you can’t get more religious than that.
But then, too, wasn’t it Christ who said that what you do to the least of your brethren you do to him?
Interesting thing, resurrection.