Sunday, 17 March 2013

Pope Francis: first impressions

I believe that it takes a little while - days and weeks - after the election of a Pope before we really get to know the new Successor of St Peter. As occurred with Pope Benedict, the holder of the office of Successor of St Peter is at once the same human individual who we might have known before his election (though I suspect that most of us outside of South America have not known Cardinal Bergoglio); but he is also someone "new" in that he is called to exercise a new office in the Church.

As a summary of the first impressions made by Pope Francis, an expression of Pope Paul VI comes to mind. I believe it is in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, and is his remark to the effect that the world will respond more to witnesses than to teachers when it comes to the task of evangelisation. There certainly has been a witness to simplicity in the first days of Pope Francis - his travelling in the minibus with the Cardinals who had just elected him, his use of a Vatican car and not the "SCV 1" limousine, the low key style of his visit to St Mary Major, and his calling in to collect his suitcases and pay his bill on the way home. One can also see a certain docility to the prompting of the Holy Spirit that can be seen in the ordinary (or perhaps not quite so ordinary!) events of life in the story that Pope Francis has subsequently told about why he chose the name Francis.

I took away two impressions of the appearance on the balcony of the Vatican basilica immediately after the election. There are times when St Peter's Square embraces, yes, an event of  significance for the universal Church, but at the same time an event that is specifically an event of the city of Rome itself. The penultimate Sunday Angelus of Benedict XVI was one such event. I felt more than anything else that, as Pope Francis introduced himself as the Bishop of Rome, it was this specifically Roman character of the occasion to which he was speaking, and his glance towards and reference to his collaborator the Cardinal Vicar for Rome (ie the bishop who actually runs the diocese of Rome) would appear to confirm this. It expressed the transfer of the kind of relationship that Cardinal Bergoglio had with the archdiocese of Buenos Aires to his new diocese (and, in the light of some of his later remarks, to the universal Church).

The second impression I took away was that the Cardinal's had elected a Marian Pope. Pope Francis' prayer for his predecessor included a request that Mary keep Pope emeritus Benedict in her care; and he also made reference to the pilgrimage to St Mary Major that he was to make the following day, though this pilgrimage does appear to have both a personal and a Jesuit significance for the new Pope. This has also been confirmed by his Marian references at the end of his addresses since, something that was also typical of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

To use an American phrase, Pope Francis' homily at the Mass concelebrated with the Cardinal electors the day after the end of the conclave left me "conflicted".  He spoke without a text according to the Vatican Information Service report; and the video extract that I watched on the BBC suggested that that was what he was doing.  And I found, because of its style of delivery, even that extract somewhat tedious to listen to. I am not a fan of ad lib homilies, believing that a priest (or bishop or Pope) owes it as an ordinary human courtesy to their congregation to decide properly what they are going to say and how they are going to say it before they get up to preach. However, the text of the homily as published on the Vatican website contains an elegant structure that speaks of preparation and gave a rather different impression.

One can see in the homily a certain vigour of expression with regard to the way in which even those holding office in the Church live the Christian life, and an interesting willingness to refer to the devil:
 ... we may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church ....

... When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness....

.....when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.
In trying to place this homily within the spectrum of the stages of evangelisation, my first reaction was to see it as being largely at the level of exhortation appropriate to primary proclamation, and without sufficienct "content" to reach the level of catechesis or ongoing formation in the faith that would conventionally be seen as the appropriate level for a homily. I particularly thought this with regard to the references to the Cross, which at first sight seem just "pious exhortation". However, it is not the case that the different stages of evangelisation can be always separated from each other (a Youth 2000 prayer festival, for example, manifests both primary proclamation and more systematic catechesis) and there is an increasing recognition that the practical situation of the faithful does require a homiletics that includes primary proclamation to prompt and renew the attitude of conversion to Christ. That Pope Francis addresses that primary proclamation even to the Cardinals of the Church is challenging.

What has interested me more than anything else, though, is the way in which Pope Francis has spoken about the Church since his election. One can perhaps take individual expressions in isolation (particularly his remark about wanting to see a Church that is poor for the poor), but I think we should put the different expressions together to make a whole.

In the homily just discussed, Pope Francis refers to "the Church, the Bride of the Lord" and he ended the homily in way that describes the Church implicitly as "Jesus Christ crucified". His words from the balcony of St Peter's just after his election indicate an understanding of the relationship of the bishop to his diocese (as walking together and mutual prayer of the one for the other), and a relationship of the Diocese of Rome to the dioceses of the universal Church. In his meeting with the full College of Cardinals, the Holy Father articulated the intense ecclesial sense that all have felt, the intense sense of communion (Pope Francis does use the word collegiality of it, and his fuller account provides a very worthwhile definition of that term) that has characterised the days of the General Congregations and then of the Conclave. His address also refers to the Church as the "Mystical Body of Christ" and the "vine of the Lord". There is a reference to Jesus Christ as truly present in the Church. He offers a quite exquisite account of the communion of the Church inspired by the Holy Spirit that can be usefully read alongside his remarks from the balcony about the Church of Rome presiding in charity over the other Churches (but note that, in context, the word "Churches" refers to dioceses of the Catholic Church):
And our acquaintance and mutual openness have helped us to be docile to the action of the Holy Spirit. He, the Paraclete, is the ultimate source of every initiative and manifestation of faith. It is a curious thing: it makes me think of this. The Paraclete creates all the differences among the Churches, almost as if he were an Apostle of Babel. But on the other hand, it is he who creates unity from these differences, not in “equality”, but in harmony. I remember the Father of the Church who described him thus: “Ipse harmonia est”. The Paraclete, who gives different charisms to each of us, unites us in this community of the Church, that worships the Father, the Son, and Him, the Holy Spirit.
In the meeting with journalists, during which he suggested that the media faced a particular challenge in covering events in the Church as those events do not fully conform to the expectations of other events in the world, Pope Francis speaks of the Church as the people of God in encounter with Jesus Christ:
The Church is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails, yet her nature is not essentially political but spiritual: the Church is the People of God, the Holy People of God making its way to encounter Jesus Christ.
And there is the testimony to poverty as being a characteristic of the Church, a testimony expressed in the Holy Father's choice of name and in his remark during his meeting with journalists:
For me, [St Francis] is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!  
As a kind of postscript: If I have understood the coverage correctly, Pope Francis gave his blessing to the gathered journalists at the end of the audience silently, or "in pectore", out of a courtesy to the possibility that many of those present would not have been believers. This offers an interesting insight for such situations as the "moment of reflection" that has replaced times of prayer in much of our public space.

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