Never in our lifetime has a Pope spoken like Francis. Human and candid: “I need to live among people and if I lived on my own, perhaps a little isolated, it wouldn’t do me good.” “[I] had come to Rome only with the necessary clothes, I washed them at night, and suddenly this….” Like you and me, he confessed to “dozing off while praying.”
Spiritual, too: “This is something I cannot explain…. The magnitude of the responsibility…. I should be rattled by now… spending the nights sleepless but there is peace… peace that does not come from me.”
Theologically challenging, but echoing Jesus: “The Lord has redeemed all of us… not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” “But do good, we will meet one another there.” (Jesus had said, “Do not hinder him, let him do good.”)
And pastoral: “We all have to think about how we can become a little poorer.” “A theoretical poverty is no use for us.”
And also in our idiom: “The 12 Apostles didn’t need a bank account.” Quite often, the papers treat us with his colorful, straight talk (Inquirer, 7/8/13).
How refreshing to hear a Pope speak like us: informal, direct, simple, brief, and provocative, sending both his “scriptwriters” and security up the wall, never knowing what to expect from his impromptu remarks matching his equally spontaneous forays into the crowds.
What a contrast to past, ponderous, platitudinous pronouncements: “In order to draw increased fruits of renewed sanctity from this holy anniversary … the Supreme Pontiff … has decided to concede the gift of plenary indulgence … with the soul completely removed from attachment to any form of sin and with the intention of observing, as soon as they can, the usual three conditions….” (Inquirer, 2/3/08) By the way, rationing indulgences is a pretty presumptuous claim.
Years ago, someone wished that the Church would do something about its “turgid documents,” the mother perhaps of the “boring homilies.” Who does not sigh over the “sacred vernacular”—archaic and abstract, full of “vouchsafe,” “deign,” and “ineffable”? Who has the patience to plow through Churchspeak in encyclicals, pastoral statements, decrees, declarations? Such language may be more befitting those who would keep the Pope a patrician. Who cares? We plebeians feel we “get him” and he “gets us.” For us to feel a kinship with the Pope—and for him to be in touch with us, even with short takes—is already a step forward. It isn’t just charm. It’s empathy.
True, we haven’t heard or read longer pieces by Pope Francis—no homilies in entirety, said to be “how he communicates best.” He has reportedly “not yet begun concrete changes or set forth an ambitious policy agenda” (New York Times, 5/25/13). Not exactly.
For if “style is the man,” if “style is substance,” if “the medium is the message,” then the Pope has been revealing the cornerstones of what he’s going to do.
He’s determined and decisive. Before a speech to diplomats to the Holy See, he said to the Vatican spokesman, “Pay attention, this is important. I want people to understand it’s important” (Ibid). He was referring to “ethics in finance,” “the cult of money,” a “faceless” economy—emerging as one theme of his agenda.
Closely related to these may lie the centerpiece of his papacy. Since he said “a poorer Church for the poor,” so many direct and oblique references to the poor and marginalized have dropped from his lips and lifestyle that social issues are forecast to be on top of his list. His first encyclical, wholly his, is to “focus on the poor.” This priority for a truly global problem is a relief from the Church’s fixation with birth-related sexual morality and a tunnel-vision response to it.
In the past, the Church has disavowed an attempt to arrest Vatican II even as it continued lip service. El Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero’s cause for sainthood was frozen, and that of Pope John XXIII was withering. Now forthright statements that there was indeed a “reform the reform” movement are out. Archbishop Romero’s case is reopened and John XXIII is a saint!
Francis has reached out to the Jews, Anglicans, The Eastern Orthodox Church, and Islam is on his mind—a thrust toward ecumenism and the other Christian Churches.
In his backyard, he is keenly aware of the entrenched system in the Vatican that can sap the faint of heart. “In the Curia, there are also holy people … but there is also a stream of corruption, there is that as well, it is true.” (NYT, 6/12/13) Back to back in the same backyard is the Vatican Bank, the official name of which is Institute for the Works of Religion. What a fall from its name and its pious intent.
In these fronts he intends to “trust with reluctance and verify deeply,” appointing a Cardinals’ Group of eight to investigate the intrigue-laden Curia and a commission of five for the scandal-ridden Vatican Bank.
But one move has disappointed: the dispatch with which he upheld the reprimand of the US Leadership Conference of Women Religious. All told, we place much hope in the auspicious substance behind the Pope’s simple style. Is it now or never?
“Reform” is ringing in his ears: reform within “Rome” and out in the world, reform against a stifling system pulling the strings, and reform for the restoration of the liberating spirit of Vatican II.
Asuncion David Maramba is a retired professor, book editor and occasional journalist. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, fax 8284454.