My Mother Likes Pope Francis

This statement might not sound worthy of a lede, much less a headline. But I know the lady, and you don’t, so you’ll just have to take my word that her applauding Peter’s successor is about as improbable as her getting pregnant at the age of 68.

Let me amend that. You might not know who my mother is, but you’ll recognize what she is. In her biography is inscribed the entire history of Catholicism in the U.S., or at any rate, the version people like to fret about. After suffering for the true faith at the hands of Norsemen and Orangemen, roundheads and redcoats, her family emigrated to America. Raised in freedom and safety, my Mom got an education, started skipping Mass, married a couple of Jews (40 years apart, she’s asked me to point out), and moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where she practices a kind of cafeteria Buddhism.

But this morning, during our weekly phone call, she was singing F1′s praises like a Vatican press secretary. “I like that he took the time to bless non-Catholics,” she said. “I love that he takes the bus and dials his own phone and is getting rid of all the spectacle and the frippery and the shit that turns people off to the Catholic Church these days.”

Coming from a woman who nicknamed Benedict “the rat,” this is a stunning turnaround. It proves that Francis has made a strong start as leader of what George Weigel calls the evangelical Catholic Church. By his personal commitment to the simple life, in his tacit acknowledgement that the Catholic view is a minority view, the pope has announced credibly that the Church is serious about washing feet, and about engaging nonbelievers on their own turf, in something like their own terms.

Now, when it comes to austerity, my mother might be an especially easy mark. She abhors stuff and always has. She and Bob, her husband, are the only people I’ve ever known who have never owned cell phones. She hasn’t driven a car since 1979. Though Bob did get one a few years ago, they use it only as transportation to funerals and speak of it with the distaste most Manhattanites reserve for overcharging, overbearing nannies. In taking even the simplest pleasures, she is moderate to the point of immoderation. At one intimate dinner, she and a friend are said to have shared a grape and called it a night.

If this proves you can take the girl out of the Church but not the reverse, the big question is whether a pope like Francis could get her back into the Church. My guess is: Not on your nelly. She’s quite happy with the way her apostate life has turned out. Unless the Church were to change its teachings on — well, on a whole lot of issues — her repentance and reversion would mean wishing she’d married her childhood sweetheart, Nuthead Chikocki, and borne a squadron of uhlans. Forget those of her friends and relatives whose post-Catholic paths led them into ‘burbs — they won’t likely find anything more compelling in Pope Francis than they do in any other straphanger.

But, though distant, heavily qualified approval from urban, intellectual quasi-aescetics might not sound like much, it is something. After all, my mother has a lot in common with the people who man the media, and Francis’ election has already forced them to change their tune, if slightly. Yesterday in Salon, Andrew O’Hehir quotes former Dominican priest Matthew Fox (who claims to be quoting late Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx) to the effect that the entire Church has been in schism since the election of John Paul II. Just a month ago, whipping up anti-Curial umbrage was a simple thing; all Mary Elizabeth Williams had to do was take a few swipes at men in dresses and pointy hats. Now it requires invoking elaborate arguments for sedevacantism. Believe it or not, this is progress.

If this progress has a forseeable end, one that Francis could hope to achieve within his own pontificate, it’s the re-tooling of the Church’s image from threatening to simply strange; from maddeningly corrupt to off-puttingly earnest. Look at the present Dalai Lama — he hasn’t gotten too many people to boycott Panda Express, but nearly everyone has something nice to say about him. For the world in general, he’s made Yellow Hat Buddhism into an admirable lifestyle choice, if an unrealistic one.

Or, better, think back to John Paul II. By 1992, the year the nation first backed the Clintons, he’d already squashed liberation theology and fired a whiff of grapeshot at the gay rights movement. Yet, when Sinead O’Connor shredded his photograph on Saturday Night Live, the public outcry put a deep dent in O’Connor’s career. Another pop singer seemed to capture the national mood when she said, “I think there is a better way to present her ideas rather than ripping up an image that means a lot to other people.” The singer’s name? Madonna.

A public that tolerates a pope and avenges grave insults against his person while continuing to do more or less whatever it wants might set some Catholics’ teeth on edge. Recall how hawks reacted when doves claimed to support the troops but not the mission. But general goodwill could pay tangible dividends. If the Obama administration had rolled out the contraception coverage mandate under different circumstances — say, after a few years under a pope who polled high on both sides of the aisle — would it have had quite so easy a time? Or would admonitions like Cardinal Dolan’s, that the government was “strangling” the Church, have caused general alarm and forced it to retreat even more than it has already?

I don’t know, but we’ll certainly find out. Those who are already mourning the pomp and swagger that Francis seems to have renounced will probably greet the end of his reign still dissatisfied with the Church’s clout. Me, I’d remind them that the Church thinks in centuries. The process of atonement for past mistakes, which JPII launched at Yad Vashem, may take a while. We may have to regain our innocence before we can hope to elect an Innocent.

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  • Theodore Seeber

    Hate to say it, but I’ve never quite understood urban environmentalism. It seems highly oxymoronic to depend so deeply on the services found in cities but abhor where those services come from. But if a bus-taking priest of the poor can make them think twice, then maybe, just maybe, it’s worth the utter loss of any fancy-schmancy liturgy that people who admire Ayn Rand go to.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Of course the ppl who didn’t like Benedict should acknowledge that they have his action — his radical, faith-filled action of trusting the HolySpirit and then throwing Christendom into the arms of Christ, for our own good — to thank for the Holy Spirit’s inspiring the choice of Francis. :-) I am protective of Papa-ratzi! ;-)

    [I like him, too! Don't you remember, Dilshad quoted my FB defense of his style?]

  • Pearty

    If it’s his aim to be “liked” by the masses then he’ll get nowhere. I did this when I was a first year secondary school teacher. I was liked by the kids to be sure, but they learned three quarters of stuff-all and by year’s end discipline was a shambles. I was reduced to screaming like a psychopath once a week to get them to behave.

    I’m sure this is not the Holy Father’s intention, so we’re fine.

  • fats

    I liked and admired Pope Benedict and like and admire Pope Francis, I think each Pope brings things to the table that we can use in our faith-filled journey to Communion with Him.
    It seems a lot of bloggers tend to compare styles of our Popes, and , to me, it seems that too much of the attention is on external appearances. Since I spent 30 years as an Atheist or Agnostic, I thank God for the Grace He gave me to be part of His Church and have the wonderful leaders to guide me. As a Catholic, my life is filled with imperfections and falls from Grace, who am I to complain about red shoes. Take what you can from each of our Ministers of Faith and rejoice in His love.

  • Manny

    This was part of a comment (with clean up typos) I just made to Crescat at her blog. It applies to this too.

    “The last few days have made it apparent that B16′s strengths were intellectual at the expense of human contact. Given what I’ve seen of Francis’s human contact approach to his ministry, human contact is much more important than intellectual pontificating, pardon the pun. The intellectual underpinnings of Catholicism are there in the magisterium. Whatever updating B16 did to it is marginal, and non-Catholics weren’t listening anyway. I like what I’ve seen Pope Francis. This contact ministry is the human contact that I’ve argued brings Christ to everyone. Through human contact is where Christ is revealed. Pope Francis is a shot in the arm!”

    I think your mother is responding to the human contact. She’s responding to Christ! God bless Francis!

    [As I've written of her before, she performs more works of mercy before breakfast than most people do all day.]

  • Manny

    “As I’ve written of her before, she performs more works of mercy before breakfast than most people do all day.”

    Well, then God bless her too! She sounds like a wonderful person.

  • DWiss

    I’m intrigued by Francis’ repitition that we can’t have Christ without the cross. He hasn’t elaborated on this yet, but I think he will because it seems central to his thinking. There’s endless meaning attached to that notion, and I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that this might be the thing that turns more than just a few heads back to the Catholic church, possibly even Max’s mom.

  • Yae

    Your mama is wise to like Papa Francis. I pray his presence in her life will plant a seed that may grow and grow. Thank you for sharing.
    She might like this story I read on another site:

    Sergio wrote:
    There is a wonderful story about Francis in today’s online edition of La Nacion, Buenos Aires’s oldest and mot prestigious newspaper. It appears that Francis used to get the paper each morning at the same stand, near BA’s cathedral. Shortly before leaving for the conclave, the stand owner asked him jokingly, “so, Jorge are you going to Rome to grab the baton” (meaning the papacy)”? and Francis responded, “what baton,? it’s a hot iron rod!. Don’t stop the paper’s delivery, I’ll be back in 3 weeks” he ordered the man. After being elected, Francis called his friend at the newsstand to bid farewell and asked to stop the paper’s delivery.

  • Mike

    Christ without the cross is a trap, into which much of our wealthy western society is slipping more and more each day.

    Christ with the cross is about redemptive suffering. It is found in all major religions and in pop psychology but get a bad wrap from the media in the RCC. Christ on the cross is a simple yet bewildering message it is a physical depiction of the mystery of our existence. That love and service are the source of power and glory. It turns the world on its head and we don’t like that.

    PS Your mom sounds alot like a 60s hippie. There was something that that generation wanted that it didn’t think could be found in the RCC. I still think the sexual revolution had more to do with WW2 than anything else. After seeing human destruction on that scale sex and the sins of abortion and divorce and now the dissolution of the ideal of mom and dad probably seemed, in comparison, inconsequential.

  • Maryette

    I heard through the grapevine that my bitter ex-Catholic sister likes him too. She’s even considering a return to the Church. Well played, Holy Spirit!? As for me, I like him very much. ——What if the Pope was one of us, just a stranger on the bus…la, la…