This Crazy Pope

“Good Letters” is pleased today to welcome Morgan Meis as a regular contributor. Read Image’s interview with Morgan here.

There were hints of craziness from the very first day. Pope Francis—Jorge Mario Bergoglio—was elected to the Papacy on March 13, 2013. When he went to the balcony of Saint Peter’s, he asked the people in the crowd below to pray for him. Only after receiving those prayers did he dispense his own requisite blessings upon the crowd. Unusual.

The next day, Francis celebrated Mass at the Sistine Chapel. He preached his first homily. In the homily, he quoted a line from Léon Bloy. Léon Bloy was not exactly your average Christian, or average-anything-else for that matter. Léon (1846-1917) was a troublemaker and a pain in nearly everyone’s ass. Heather King, in her “Credible Witness” column for the Catholic magazine Magnificat, described Bloy this way: “A ranter-writer, [Bloy] refused to get a day job, was perpetually penniless, and at one point fell violently in love with a prostitute who later converted, saw visions, and was committed to an insane asylum.”

Bloy was fond of saying things like, “Priests are latrines. They are there for humanity to pour out our filth.” You’ll notice that this statement is perfectly correct, doctrine-wise. That is exactly what happens in confession. The filth pours out. Nevertheless, it takes a certain chutzpa to compare priests to latrines, even when you mean it as a compliment.

So, when Pope Francis quoted Bloy in his first homily, he was making a statement. According to many interpreters, Francis was striking a blow against conservatives in the Catholic Church. He was giving a sign that he was going to be a contemporary sort of Pope, a Pope in step with modern times.

There is a problem with this line of thinking. The problem comes from the line that Pope Francis actually quoted from Léon Bloy. The line goes like this: “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” Yikes. That’s a thought right out of the eighth century, a missive from the Dark Ages.

But that’s the line Pope Francis quoted, and he followed it up with his own gloss: “When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.” And Pope Francis has been consistent with this line of thinking. He’s recently annoyed those who want to see him as a “modernizer” of the church by praising a group known as the International Association of Exorcists. These people, like Francis, take the devil rather seriously.

According to the Pope, nothing much has changed in the last few thousand years as regards God, the devil, and the world. Worldliness without God is still the terrain of Satan. The Pope is no modernizer—if being a modernizer means abandoning this central thought. For Francis, there is a difference between being “in step” with the modern world and having something to say to the modern world. Francis has something to say, but he’s got no interest in being in step. In fact, he seems to be suggesting that having something to say to the modern world means being, in some fundamental way, out of step.

To be unworldly. To be disturbingly anachronistic. To be in the world but not of the world. These are things we have heard before. There’s something about this in a Letter from James. Paul talks like this sometimes, as does John. According to John, Jesus once said, “If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you.” Troubling ideas, but Christianity is riddled with them.

Léon Bloy practically reveled in being hated by the world. He didn’t think that the Gospel and worldliness could ever coexist in comfort. To Bloy, therefore, being in the world but not of it meant hovering close to a place that is normally called crazy. It doesn’t make good sense to live your life the way the Gospels tell you to live it. When the rich kid goes up to Jesus and says he wants to follow him, Jesus says, “OK, give away every single thing you have and come along.” The kid can’t do it. Who can blame him?

Another time Jesus says, “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Hundreds of followers simply walk away. Jesus loses essentially every disciple he has gained and is left with a core group of oft-befuddled, potentially cannibalistic jokers we’ve come to know as the Apostles. But what else could possibly have happened? What Jesus said was crazy. It was like God asking Abraham to kill his son. There is no good reason to do it. There are only reasons not to do it.

Nobody has ever wanted to follow Jesus to the cross, not as a first impulse at least, not as a life goal. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once famously said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Most, understandably, balk at the offer. But some have done it. To follow Christ to the cross, to enter into suffering believing it to be the preferred route—these are the actions of those who can only be considered insane.

Léon Bloy once said, “Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.” A pig. It is a harsh way to say it, but the thought is essentially the same as Bonhoeffer’s, or that of Jesus himself. Is the Gospel true or not? If it is, what the hell are we all doing living normal lives? Could it be desirable, even necessary, to edge just a little closer to craziness?

You’ll notice that Pope Francis often has an impish smile on his face. He is enjoying his crazy ride as Pope. He stops in the middle of crowds and grabs horribly deformed people for hugs. Even he seems surprised by what he is doing sometimes. He is making his pilgrimage to the cross look joyful, which may be the craziest thing of all.

Morgan Meis is the critic-at-large for The Smart Set (thesmartset.com). He has a PhD in Philosophy and has written for n+1The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.


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