Is Pope Francis a Blessing or a Curse?

“But I don’t want to interview you, Papa! I just wanted a papal blessing!”

I’ve been reading and re-reading Kathleen Norris’s Amazing Grace for almost a year now. I pick it up often when I find myself distressed. It’s prose that reads like poetry, which soothes my mind, and it’s full of beautiful reflections on a life of faith, which soothes my soul.

Her musings on conversion radically altered the way I understand conversion.

The word ‘conversion’ comes from the Latin for ‘to turn around’. Thus it denotes a change of perspective but not of essence: a change of view but not location.

Conversion should never be simple switch, though, a one-time change, not for any of us, not ever. That’s because our essence does not change with a conversion, but our understanding of everything, even ourselves, shifts. Constantly. It’s a life-long metamorphosis, the process by which we allow Christ to mold us into that image of himself which each one of us was uniquely created to reflect. Becoming more like Christ doesn’t mean that we will be gradually assimilated into Christ Borg, though. We’ll never all think and move and act and speak identically, because our essence remains. There’s St. Francis and then there’s St. Catherine of Siena. There’s Blessed Imelda and then there’s St. Augustine. There’s St. Thomas Aquinas and then there’s St. Joseph of Copertino…and we none of us have all the right answers, all the right attitudes, all the Christ. Our challenge is to allow ourselves to seek, find, and be transformed into what Christ wants, not what we want. That’s why it’s so hard.

But as hard as it is to allow ourselves to be transformed into something we might not want to become, I think it’s much harder to watch someone else gradually transform into something that doesn’t fit our perception of what God wants…especially if that transformation includes turning against what we hold dear, what we cherish, and what we believe to be the right way. As Kathleen Norris put it, “Conversion is frightening to oneself, and to others, precisely because it can seem like a regression.”

Lately, there have been many people expressing the deep fear that the Church is regressing under Pope Francis. The happy-clappy sentimentalism and moral relativism associated with the post-Vatican II era have taken on a looming, oppressive aspect in the blogosphere lately, like the Ghost of Catholicism Past, Catholicism Still Sometimes Present, and Catholicism Future all in one. It seems like the tentative new springtime the Church experienced under Pope Benedict is being ground back into the choking dust of modernity, interview by blasted interview.

There is a chapter in Amazing Grace entitled, “Inheritance: Blessing and Curse,” and nothing could be truer. When I read it the first time, I realized how much I was shutting out by just disavowing my Evangelical upbringing. There were things about it that I no longer agree with, or I wouldn’t be Catholic. But I also wouldn’t be Catholic if I hadn’t been raised Evangelical.

I say that with certainty, because I know myself. I know my self-righteous tendency to dismiss everyone who even hints of self-righteousness. It was essential that I be raised with images of Christians who weren’t all


I saw alot of that growing up. But I also saw alot of genuinely Christ-like people…too many for me to dismiss all of Christianity. This kind of Christian isn’t just confined to Evangelicalism, either. There are plenty of them in the Catholic camp as well, just as there are plenty of cafeteria Catholics. I could give you a list dividing nearly everyone in the blogosphere into little sub-categories under those headings, actually. Which is why it was so important for me to own my inheritance…in many ways, I’m still there. My view has changed, but not my location.

But it’s far less pleasant-it can feel like a curse-to include in my welcome the difficult ancestors: the insane, the suicides, the alcoholics, the religiously self-righteous who literally scared the bejesus out of me when I was little, or who murdered my spirit with words of condemnations. Abel is welcome in my family tree, but I’d just as soon leave Cain out. Yet God has given me both, reminding me that the line in Psalm 16, “welcome indeed the heritage that falls to me,” can be a tough one to live with. If, as Paul says, “all things work together for the good of those who love God” (Rom.8:28), then in giving me a mixed inheritance, both blessing and curse, God expects me to make something of it. Redeem the bad, and turn it into something good.

(Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace)

I was reminded of this passage when I was reading Pat Archbold’s post yesterday at the National Catholic Register, Pope Traumatic Stress Disorder. He brought up a lot of really good points. The Church’s recent history is unpleasant at best…the contraceptive mentality, abortion, the sexual abuse scandal…the Church’s closet is fairly bursting with skeletons that wrought widespread damage, led countless souls astray, and brought a whole culture to its feet in outrage. I don’t want to go back there either, even though I wasn’t Catholic then. No one wants to go back there. And he’s right to entertain the possibility that “the spirit of the times can overwhelm the truth contained in the Pope’s rhetoric.”

But those post-Vatican II days that wrought so much damage are part of our spiritual inheritance. And with all the bad they brought, they brought a little good, too. At the very least, Vatican II brought the vernacular to the Mass. I would never have converted if it weren’t for the truth and beauty of the liturgy, and if it were still in Latin I would never have heard it. I know many converts whose journey began by hearing the words “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the words and my soul shall be healed.” And though the damage done by the widespread misapplication of Vatican II is not negligible, the way has been paved for good to be found anew. The rediscovery of life without contraception, for instance, by couples entrenched in a contraceptive mentality is a beautiful witness to the reality of a life of faith…a faith willing to face death, even.

I worry because those most encouraged by the Pope’s word and style are those most vehemently opposed to the Church and her mission. I worry that Pope Francis, like Pope Paul VI, may look back on his pontificate and wonder what went wrong.

I understand what he’s saying, and I understand that fear. But I find myself encouraged by that first sentence. He’s right, many of those most encouraged by the Pope are also those most vehemently opposed to Church teaching, at least (I don’t think they’re all bitter anti-Catholics.) That doesn’t necessarily mean Pope Francis is here to lead us into a brand new wasteland of electric guitars and laser shows at every Mass. I think a lot of what happens during his pontificate depends on us. There wasn’t an internet sixty years ago. People weren’t able to find like-minded, strong Catholics and figure out the best way to stem the shift of the cultural tide. We can. We can watch all this unfold and be there to ensure that the spirit of the times does not overwhelm the truth. The Pope is giving us an opening. He’s grabbed the secular culture by the ear and made them go, “huh. Maybe those Catholics aren’t such nutters after all.” Now it’s time for us to show them that, in fact, we are such nutters, and why. But we can only do that through constant conversion.

My conversion to Catholicism wasn’t a rejection of what came first, it was a continuation of it. I can’t tear down my past. I can only build on it. Vatican II happened, everything that came after it happened, and we really haven’t moved beyond all that much. In many ways, we’re still paralyzed by the sins that swept through the Church back then…they’re just taking different forms. But all of it is part of our spiritual inheritance. Pope Francis, like it or not, is part of our spiritual inheritance. We can stand around wringing our hands about how much he’s messing up by saying things that are being misinterpreted, or we can build on the openings he gives us and correct the misinterpretation. We know Pope Francis is a son of the Church, and we know he has said nothing contradictory to Church teaching, so in the end whether he turns out to be a blessing or a curse for the Church depends largely on us.

The Church is and always will be steadfast, but she is made up of sinners who should be constantly converting. It was the constant conversion that has been missing, as Pat says, “top to bottom.” If the church had been constantly converting, truth would not have been ignored. Children would not have been abused, aborted, and contracepted away. But they were, and that legacy is part of our inheritance. It’s ours to bear. It seems unfair, but we own that debt now. We are the only ones who can pay it. The church, all of us, must persevere in the tentative, hesitant conversion that has begun, at peace in the knowledge that

“…we do not suddenly change in essence, magically becoming new people, with all our old faults left behind. What happens is more subtle, and to my mind, more revealing of God’s great mercy. In the process of conversion, the detestable parts of our selves do not vanish so much as become transformed. We can’t run from who we are, with our short tempers, our vanity, our sharp tongues, our talents for self-aggrandizement, self-delusion, or despair. But we can convert, in its root meaning of turn around, so that we are forced to face ourselves as we really are. We can pray that God will take our faults and use them for the good.

(Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace)

  • WesleyD

    This is a brilliant post. What really hit me was the difference between 1970 and 2013 — a difference so huge that it’s almost invisible to us because we are so used to it. In the 1970s, when our parish priest stopped talking about certain topics, my parents (lifetime good Catholics) concluded that the Church no longer cared about such topics, because they had grown up in a society where the Pope gave a message to the bishops, the bishops passed the message on to their priests, and the priests passed the message on to the people. So when the priest said that X-Y-Z wasn’t a sin, for my parents that was the “Church” saying it wasn’t a sin.

    But in 2013, anyone can look up the Pope’s exact words and the exact words of Vatican II in a dozen languages at the touch of a button. The folks who read the New York Times may be told distorted facts, but those who really care (as opposed to those who like to say “zing!” and then click on something else) can easily find out what the pope really said. As you say, people can read blogs or online journals… and most importantly they can find faithful Catholics whose words and lives can tell them what the Church is really all about.

  • Hernán J. González

    “those most encouraged by the Pope’s word and style are those most vehemently opposed to the Church and her mission.”

    What an ugly, prejudiced and presumptuous thing to say.

    • linda daily

      I agree. This article is disjointed and agenda driven with little connection to the grace of Kathleen Norris’ wonderful book.

  • Dale

    “those most encouraged by the Pope’s word and style are those most vehemently opposed to the Church and her mission.”

    That line from Pat Archbold is a rhetorical overstatement. It is erroneous,
    and even slanderous, of good Catholics who are heartened by the change
    in style which Pope Francis brings.

    Francis reminds me, for all the world, of John Paul II. Early in his papacy, JP II was a rock star: youthful, charismatic and full of energy. He reached out to people, particularly the young, in a way which had been sorely lacking.

    Pope Francis is the same way. That his style is different from Pope Benedict is refreshing, but not an indictment of Benedict. It simply is needed for balance, for the health of the people of Christ. Francis shows every evidence of following in the footsteps of Pope Benedict, but with a different style. This is a good thing, because it reaches out to persons who were not reached by his predecessor.

    Archbold’s claim that Pope Paul VI looked back on his papacy wondering what went wrong is not supported by evidence. What Archbold cites was a 1972
    homily, given a little over halfway through his tenure as pope. In it, Paul VI clearly identifies a worship of Science and of Progress, as the source of the problem, evidence of Satan’s handiwork.
    (in Italian)

    The unholy exaltation of human activity, particularly of science and of
    “Progress,” characterized Western culture during the the 20th century. I think Archbold is correct that the spirit of the times can pervert the Church’s message. In the wake of Vatican II, many clergy and laity were allowed to put their own spin on the teachings of that council.

    But it is important to note that Vatican II unleashed pressures which had
    built up in the Church. This was the reason the council had been convened. If anything, the same could be said for the situation today, but in the opposite direction. The Church has been slow to “reform the reform” and pressures for change have built up. Archbold’s concern is reasonable, but it is important to remember that those who are distorting the words of Pope Francis are, for the most part, not active in the Church. That is a crucial difference from the post-Vatican II era.

    Changes need to be made in the Church. There are some serious ailments which need to be addressed. Curing the problems will make some people uncomfortable. This is unfortunate and it may be unpleasant at times, yet, as Calah points out:

    “The Church is and always will be steadfast, but she is made up of sinners who should be constantly converting. It was the constant conversion that has been missing”

  • Caitlyn @ City and the Cubicle

    Pope Francis has been a blessing. I think he is just what we needed. He is refreshing and his warm, open style is bringing many back to the Church.

  • Michelle

    You really develop a good truth here. I’m thinking a book of this type would be a good read (just in case you have considered it).

    Also, I am sad for Hernan. I think that he has missed the point and don’t let it discourage you. You get it and may God bless the evangelicals with whom you were nurtured with the truth ~ even it it wasn’t in it’s entirety.

  • Sr. Dorcee

    I think one of the things that is very important in understanding Pope Francis is that we read everything that he writes/says . . . and not just some things. I think that is the only way we can really understand his heart and his mind. Just reading one interview is not enough. No one says all that he thinks in a single conversation, especially a conversation he’s having with one person and not the whole world. Just sayin’.

  • Renee

    It seems those who oppose the Church Teachings, but LOVE the Pope are getting their info from secular sources that have reframed the message.

    Our response should be ‘Im happy you like him, here’s a link that’s directly shares his words if you eant to read more.’ The media isn’t responsible to share the Gospel, it’s the Church. And when I say the Church, that doesn’t mean putting it all on the Pope to share the message. It means us, too.

  • Josh

    The question is not “Is Francis a blessing or a curse?” because it implies he may be a curse or that its possible he could even be a curse. The Vicar of Christ is never a curse and always a blessing. (And I do know we’ve had some very bad popes.) In fact, no one is a curse. Just like children are always a blessing, even if their parents think of them as curses. You can’t love someone and think they are a curse.

    The question is rather “Is Francis a stumbling block?” or “Is Francis a Fool?” Judging from the Pat Archbold post you cite, and so many other fearful, calumny-by-way-of-”concern” contributions from the Catholic blogosphere’s finest armchair brand managers, the answer seems to be “yes.” His ways are a stumbling block and foolishness to some of the faithful. Great. He’s in good company. (And he’s a stumbling block for me too–”wait, are you saying giving some money to Catholic Charities every year and occasionally buying a homeless person lunch from a drive-thru isn’t all Jesus is asking of me in terms of being with and for the poor?”)

    I didn’t read the post as saying Francis is a curse, or even complaining about anything. And I loved the talk about the Vatican II reforms, that so many (even if they haven’t started attending an SSPX chapel…yet) think are curses, being blessings and bearing great fruit, e.g. Calah Alexander being Catholic. But the larger debates about Francis and his wiley, wiley ways, which this post seems to at least acknowledge as being legitimate, are crap. They’re just crap. They’re based on nothing. No one should be publicly airing their concern about Francis’s personal style and emphases may or may not mean for the Church…at least the Church as perceived by the “concerned.” The best expression of the common sense behind this that I’ve read is:

    “I think the pope may be teaching error, even if not ‘officially’” is reason enough for columns and blog posts. Of course, that would require error being taught. “Judging by main stream media accounts of the translation of a casual interview, transcribed from memory by an 80 year-old, I think the pope could have phrased things a little more clearly and should have emphasized more the parts of the faith I emphasize when I’m on FaceBook. It sure looks like we’re going to have another Vatican II debacle,” is not reason enough for anything. And it’s legitimately scandalous, in a way Francis’s (wise) emphasis on love in a loveless world, even to the apparent downplaying of justice, never will be.

  • Melody

    Thanks for reminding me that my daughter-in-law gave me a copy of “Amazing Grace”. I love Kathleen Norris’ writings, I’m going to have to figure out where I stashed that book and re-read it.
    Speaking as one who lived prior to Vatican II (I was middle-school age when it happened) things were not all roses and daisies then, either. People shouldn’t try to lump the sex abuse scandals in with post-VII craziness, because that poisonous weed has roots in the past, and was growing centuries rather than years ago.
    Pope Francis has his work cut out for him, as do all popes.

  • Smoochagator

    A good friend of mine, with whom I served in a mainline Protestant church for many years, and who is now what I’d describe as hostilely agnostic (as in, he’s been hurt so much by Christians and seen so much ugliness in his years of service that he cannot see evidence of Christ anywhere in any church) recently posted on Facebook that Pope Francis is the first person he can honestly call a TRUE Christian. Not because of any dogmatic misrepresentations in the media, but because of the Pope’s humility and humor and earnestness and candor. I think that Francis will be, in many ways, VERY good for the Church. He seems to me to be a JPII for this generation – a man who will be deeply loved by Catholics AND non-Catholics and for all the right reasons. I may be wrong about that, but I hope I’m not – because already I am so in love with him, and thrilled to think that I may be entering the church during his papacy.