It has been six months and eight days since Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected as the 266th Pope and took the name Francis.Perhaps enough water has passed down the Tiber for us to begin to make an assessment of our new Holy Father.
It is doubly important to attempt it because, since his election the new Pope has struck out in a very distinctive manner in every way except for the actual content of his teaching.
Not all Pope Francis' " difference" is of his own choosing of course, and those elements are of critical importance.He is a Latin-American, an Argentinian, and his native tongue is Spanish , and indeed he is unable to speak English. It follows that he has no necessary affinity for the Anglophone world. Rather his national identity is framed by a country that has seen itself as a victim of the Anglophone nations - the despised English once the colonial power, and later the enemy of the Falkland Islands(Las Malvinas) adventure by Argentina , and the United States - the " capitalist " enemy of South American aspirations.He has also grown up and matured in an Argentina wracked by unrest, disappointed political and economic aspirations, civil disorder and military dictatorship, and a large under class of poor people.And in a Church which in Argentina had too often been identified with the military, government and the upper class.
He did however choose to be a Jesuit.His membership of the Society of Jesus is without doubt a powerful formative influence on his life, and thinking. And given the Latin American context, this acquires particular significance.For in South America, the Jesuits in the post-Conciliar period have been frequently at the forefront of the Marxist influenced strain of Liberation Theology. However it is often argued that in Argentina the strain of Liberation Theology developed was not Marxist - influenced, but rather heavily concentrated around traditional Catholic devotional practice.
Many would and do argue, that his Jesuit formation makes him prone to certain intellectual and even liturgical approaches that are not appropriate to his high office.In the former case Pope Francis seems content at times to speak in such a way as to cause controversy in order to stimulate thinking about a subject - but it is argued in rebuttal of this approach, that his role is to actually teach and not to merely stir up debate. In the latter case, his adoption of rather severe ( admirers would say more simple) vestments, has been criticised as being pre-occupied with showing humility to the people at the expense of recognising that fine vestments as required in Sacred Scripture , are about the honour due to God and teaching the people the dispositions we should bring to the worship of God.
The Holy Father's Homilies and addresses have tended to be very much less scholarly than those of his predecessors, and closer to what one might hear in a good Parish Homily. The change is really quite dramatic.
Then again, the Holy Father's penchant for media titillating actions has not been universally received well one critic referring to " conspicuous acts of public humility" (Ouch!) Among these:
Going to pay his own Hotel Bill after the Conclave garbed in the Papal Cassock
Being driven about sometimes in a small Ford Focus
Choosing to make well-publicised Private Phone Calls to people around the world in difficult situations ( common practice at a national level of some Candidates for political office)
Accepting the gift of a used car(Renault R4)from a Priest.
Making gratuitous and reported critical remarks to Priest owners of better cars when he visited a Vatican car park.
Speaking " off the cuff" repeatedly.
In a politician , similar acts would be termed " media stunts" .Indeed that some have something of that character about them, is shown by the fact that the Holy Father still doe use the Papal Limousine . ( And with good reason - especially when it is considered that its special construction, power and speed might save his life in case of an attempted assassination)
Many have criticised this sort of activity as demeaning the Papal office.
In fact, during these first six months the Holy Father's particular way of going about his sacred office has been almost the exclusive topic concerning the Papacy.But in the last days of the six month period there occurred an event that is the quintessence of all of these phenomena pre-packaged and delivered to the world's door step.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge at the Meeting of
the Pontifical Council for Social Communications
In what has been dubbed " TBI" ( The Big Interview) Pope Francis has given a free-wheeling interview to Father Antonio Spadaro S.J. for Syndication through Jesuit Magazines around the World. And at 12,000 words it certainly is big.
Its very release showed forth the worst aspects of the Holy Father's governance. For on the day it was published ( in Rome in Civilta Cattolica the Jesuit Magazine so well connected to the Holy See that it is regarded as quasi- official), the Holy See's Pontifical Council for Social Communications was gathered in Rome in Plenary Session AND knew nothing about it until members' phones started vibrating with media wanting answers to the myriad questions the loose language in the Interview gave rise to. Numerous Bishops around the world were similarly flat-footed or " blind -sided" as the Americans would say, once again being asked to explain what the media wanted to believe the Pope was saying.
However, selected Mainstream Media had been leaked copies of the Interview by the various Jesuit Editors.They were well primed with questions and Catholic responders to their questions were left to look like idiots.
Worse was to come.
Some of the phrasing used in the Holy Father's replies to Father Spadaro seem almost calculated to invite the interpretation that conservative Catholics were being put down and dissidents given a green light.
Consider this comment by R.R.Reno Editor of FIRST THINGS in the USA:
"He then digresses into fairly extensive reflections on what the Church needs in the way of pastoral leadership in this situation: “pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.” We’re not to allow ourselves to fixate on “small things, in small-minded rules.” The Church needs to find “new roads,” “new paths,” and “to step outside itself,” something that requires “audacity and courage.”
These and other comments evoke assumptions that are very much favored by the Left, which is why the interview has been so warmly received, not only by the secular media, but also by Catholics who would like the Church to change her teachings on many issues.
Such comments by Francis do not challenge but instead reinforce America’s dominant ideological frame. It’s one in which Catholics loyal to the magisterium are “juridical” and “small-minded.” They fear change, lacking the courage to live “on the margins.” I heard these and other dismissive characterizations again and again during my twenty years teaching at a Jesuit university."
Of course the anti -Church "New York Times" needed no encouragement to make a welter out of the whole thing and to effectively set the tone and tenor of most of the commentary by the secular media. The Times ran with headlines proclaiming : " Pope Says Church Obsessed with Gays, Abortion and Birth Control"
He did NOT.
That scarcely matters to the masses - the word (false) is out and "every body knows!" what the Pope said. They don't of course, but it is convenient for them to seize upon the headline to learn what they would prefer to hear.( In reality what he said is no different in meaning, though less elegantly stated, than what Pope Benedict XVI said in
In reality what has happened is this. The anti-Church mainstream media has taken a giant step forward in their deliberate campaign to invent their own Pope Francis - an effort they had already begun with descriptions such as "the people's Pope" ( a sort of male celibate Princess Diana) . But now they have made him teach things he has not and would not. These people are of course the successors of the people who invented and sold their own " Council of the Media" as Pope Benedict described it - totally at odds with the documents of the Second Vatican Council. But most " bought" the media version and will blithely repeat all manner of falsities about what the Council did. The resultant disasters affect the Church until to-day.
The new Media-invented "Pope Francis" will be used to undermine confidence in the Church and the Magisterium and the effort is well underway.
Oh! As for the Interview itself, it is a very , very long read by to-day's standards. It is doctrinally sound OF COURSE and perfectly consistent with previous Papal Teaching and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.It is also revealing of the approach the Holy Father is bringing to his work. He intends to be consultative whilst preserving his prerogatives.He notes that with in a few days he will be beginning his consultations with the Group of 8 Cardinals ( including our own Cardinal George Pell) and he is developing his own approach to the reform of the Curia which he will be discussing with them among other things. He is keen to advance discussions with the Orthodox Churches toward the possibility of their return to Communion with the Holy See.But his main theme - the one that in its expression facilitated all the Media disinformation - is the need to have the Church seen not simply as the enforcer of an elaborate matrix of moral rules, but first of all as the proclaimer of the Good News of Jesus Christ and his winning for us the chance of Salvation.
There is much in the interview that is quite beautiful in thought and expression. There is a little that is naive - but we may say that because the Holy Father in the interview acknowledges that though astute , he is also sometimes naive ,and regularly disorganised .
Interestingly, he describes his decision to live in the guest suite at Casa Santa Marta because he likes being with people. He is explicit in saying that this is the reason he did not choose to live in the Papal Apartments - not that he found them too grand or luxurious -- he makes the point that they are not. But simply that they were difficult for people to have easy access to him.
To sum up,the Cardinal Electors have elected someone who is making life for Catholics very "interesting".
We understand that a Chinese curse runs: " May you live in interesting times."