Another voice added to the “Amen” chorus singing the praises of Pope Francis, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni:
It wasn’t the particulars of Pope Francis’ groundbreaking message in an interview published last week that stopped me in my tracks, gave fresh hope to many embittered Catholics and caused hardened commentators to perk up.
It was the sweetness in his timbre, the meekness of his posture. It was the revelation that a man can wear the loftiest of miters without having his head swell to fit it, and can hold an office to which the term “infallible” is often attached without forgetting his failings. In the interview, Francis called himself naïve, worried that he’d been rash in the past and made clear that the flock harbored as much wisdom as the shepherds. Instead of commanding people to follow him, he invited them to join him. And did so gently, in what felt like a whisper.
What a surprising portrait of modesty in a church that had lost touch with it.
And what a refreshing example of humility in a world with too little of it.
That’s what stayed with me, not the olive branch he extended to gay people or the way he brushed aside the contraception wars but his personification of a virtue whose deficit in American life hit me full force when I spotted it here, in his disarming words. Reading and then rereading the interview, I felt like a bird-watcher who had just stumbled upon a dodo.
I’m hardly the first to flag this pope’s apparent humility or the fact that it extends beyond his preference for simple dress over regal costumes, for a Ford Focus over a papal chariot, for modest quarters over a monarch’s suite. Less than two months ago, when he answered a question about gay priests with a question of his own — “Who am I to judge?”— the self-effacement in that phrase was widely and rightly celebrated. Was a pope really acting and talking like this?
But Francis’ tone so far is interesting not just as a departure for the church but as a counterpoint to the prevailing sensibility in our country, where humility is endangered if not quite extinct. It’s out of sync with all the relentless self-promotion, which has been deemed the very oxygen of success. It sits oddly with the cult of self-esteem.
A different reaction, however, from Rod Dreher:
There is so, so much to love and to affirm here — and great wisdom too. [The pope’s] comparison of the Church in this time as like a field hospital is quite apt. It’s true for all times, but especially for today, it seems to me, with so many people lost and confused and hurting.
I know what the Pope means here, and he’s right: there is so very much more to Christianity than its teachings on sexuality and abortion. But this is where I think he goes badly wrong: his remarks will be received as the Pope saying that this stuff doesn’t matter all that much. Francis can’t claim he was misquoted or that the article gave the wrong emphasis, because he personally approved it before publication. He may not have intended it this way, but it will be taken as such by a people, especially in Europe and North America, who have closed their hearts and minds to the Church’s unchanging message on these topics, precisely because these are the hardest things for modern people to accept. A conservative Catholic priest friend wrote to me after reading this:
Words fail. If this keeps up, everything is going to be much harder. I can’t say it surprises me; the man gave an eighty minute press conference to the assembled press corps on an airplane. But it’s terribly naive, in a time when people graduate from Catholic elementary and high schools, college, and don’t know the most fundamental things about the Faith, not to realize how selectively people will pounce on this kind of thing. I feel sorry for the people in the Church who are working hard on Christian education and formation, trying to repair the damage of forty-five years. The legs are being chopped out from under them.
I think this is exactly right. I love his style — seriously, I do — but I am sure the liberal Pope has been very, very naive in his words here. Look at the weight the media, who amplify his words, put on the homosexuality, contraception, and abortion parts of a very long interview. The world wants to be told, “It’s okay, do what you like.” He no doubt doesn’t mean at all for that to be the lesson of his words, but that’s how they will be received. For liberals and Moralistic Therapeutic Deists within Catholicism, it’s springtime. For traditionalists and conservatives in the Catholic Church, it’s going to be a long winter. It was easy for conservative Catholics to be strong papalists under John Paul II and Benedict. This papacy is going to be a time of trial for them.