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Labeling Francis

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The list of papabiles always titillating the world’s curiosity notwithstanding, no one ever has predicted correctly who gets elected pope.

Albino Luciani (Pope John Paul I) was a complete stranger in 1978. Eighteen days after his death, the announcement that one “Karolum Cardinalem Wojtyla” had been chosen pope elicited the question, “Who he?”

In 2013, despite social media, the Catholic Church’s choice of a new pope still took the world by surprise. The speculations as to who he would be, after Benedict XVI resigned, sorted the papabiles into categories.

The first name floated in international media was Ghana’s Peter Turkson, described as “close” to Benedict XVI (Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger). How that description was arrived at was not explained beyond the fact that Turkson was a curial cardinal and a polyglot who could speak six languages. Curial cardinal and papal nuncio Malcolm Ranjith of Sri Lanka, fluent in 10 languages but one of the lesser known papabiles, was “Ratzingerian.”

The categorization did not stop after Jorge Bergoglio’s election to the papacy. His “tiff” with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was par for the course. But to call him her “political archenemy” was not. Is there another way for a Catholic priest to comport himself vis-à-vis the issues of gay marriage and free artificial contraception? One week into the new papacy, Kirchner was neither friend nor foe, but she was privileged with the first papal audience and a private lunch.

Also as quick was the labeling of Bergoglio, when he was still the Jesuit provincial superior in Argentina and, later, Buenos Aires archbishop, as an apostle of “antiliberation theology.” Indeed he rejected liberation theology. But the basis of the label was the kidnapping and detention of Jesuit priests Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics by the Jorge Videla regime in 1976. Working for a poor neighborhood, both were advised by Bergoglio to move out. The two disobeyed and were eventually expelled from the Society of Jesus. The quick conclusion: Bergoglio was “involved” in their kidnapping.

The true story is out now that he is pope. A primary source recalls how Bergoglio worked for the two priests’ freedom. Knowing that the Videla family priest was to say Mass one day for the dictator and his family, Bergoglio advised the priest to decline. He will say the Mass in his stead—the only way Bergoglio could see Videla, then use the occasion to ask for the release of the priests. Which he did.

Lost in the interminable guesswork following the conclave was the statement of Jalics, now a Jesuit returnee: “As I made perfectly clear in my prior statement, we were arrested because of a female catechist who had at first collaborated with us and then later joined the guerrillas. I hope God will bless Pope Francis abundantly in his duties,” recalling how they celebrated Mass together after his Jesuit reinstatement.

But the rather tart description of Bergoglio’s relationship with the Jesuits persists. The lesbian activist and writer Jamie Manson writes glowingly that she has been “touched by Francis’ clear love of the poor,” but that she is “troubled by his alleged failure to stand up (against) Argentine dictators and his harmful words about LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] families. I am worried by reports that he was unpopular among his brother Jesuits because of his unfavorable views of liberation theology.” Worried by events that took place almost 40 years ago? That is unfair as well to the present Society of Jesus.

Descriptions, labels based on scant knowledge inhibit our proper understanding of the new pope and of his directions that the Catholic faithful want to see. Three very recent events, which should tell us of Pope Francis’ thrusts, have been underreported.

One is a personal request he made to Jose Cardinal Policarpo, archbishop of Lisbon. At the 181st general assembly of the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference, Policarpo announced, with the Pope’s permission, that the Pope wanted him to go to Fatima and there place his pontificate under the protection of Our Lady of Fatima. This tells us the personal devotion side of the new pope.

The second is a statement he read before the diplomatic corps of Vatican City on March 22. To all the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, he said: “But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, the dear and venerated Benedict XVI, called the ‘dictatorship of relativism’.”

By taking on the essential spiritual vision of his predecessor, the statement tells us very simply that each new pope builds on what is known as the deposit of faith. That is the accumulation of teachings and traditions that the Church has stood by. Popes do not suddenly legislate what “labelists” claim as “popular” clamor for artificial contraception, same sex marriage, female ordination, etc.

The third is an often ignored fact that Vatican observer John Allen cited before the conclave: Bergoglio’s close identification with Comunione e Liberazione, a broad movement present worldwide that believes that “communion with the Church brings about the liberation of the human condition.” Benedict XVI paraphrased that as “total fidelity and communion with the Successor of Peter and of the Pastors who assure the governing of the Church.” Bergoglio has been a regular speaker at its massive annual gatherings in Rimini, Italy. Some say it is a “Catholic integralist and anti-Marxist organization” which “the American left will absolutely hate him for.”

Pick up any label but as one writer suggests, “Francis cannot be captured by these political categories.”


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