Pope Francis: Father Figure

(Pope Francis in March 2013. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License).
(Pope Francis in March 2013. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License).

My last two posts (available here and here) have attempted defenses of the current pontiff. Predictably enough, they’ve elicited some negative responses, accusing me of uncritical papal apology. Nowhere have I stated that Pope Francis can do no wrong. Like any man he is wrong—a lot. My issue, however, has always been with cramming his every decision into a pre-formed narrative. It’s deeply saddening—so many Catholics have created the framework for a self-fulfilling prophecy. In truth, I tire of seeing the pope’s every bead of sweat scrutinized for another example of his heterodoxy.

After some reflection, I realized that my particular relationship vis-à-vis the Holy Father stems from my history—the fact that I was raised secularly. In a sense, he is an ecclesiastical father figure to me (and others) because of when and how we grew up.

I was born in 1993. I remember the death of John Paul II and the resignation of Benedict XVI, but I was not a truly practicing Catholic until around the accession of Francis. In my coming to Catholicism, there was little of the Polish phenomenologist, or the liturgical wars of the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. There was no interest in the problem of “women-priests” or in the new translation of the Missal. For me, the female priest issue was closed, and I knew that Vatican II was necessary even while it made possible liturgical abuses now in need of correction. My very entrance into Catholicism lacked anything like a Cold War mentality—I was liberal, conservative, socialist, libertarian, traditionalist, and modern all at once. To myself, I was Catholic—end of story. I could read Belloc, Dorothy Day, Oscar Wilde, Meister Eckhart, Origen, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Augustine, and then Whittaker Chambers and Russell Kirk, and feel entirely at home.

Partly, this is a product of my personality, but I think it owes as much to the time in which I truly “entered” the Church. The two “conservative” pontiffs had helped draw back some of the more inane abuses following the 60s and 70s. I took these liturgical goods for granted. The Church was experiencing problems, however; secular people didn’t seem to get us. Then along came Francis, just as I was embracing the faith, and he said what was in my head all along—oppose abortion; oppose the death penalty; care for the world and the poor who inhabit it most precariously; confess; do penance; repent. In a word: love. Because I was not alive during the Cold War, my Catholicism never became married to Carter or Reagan. I felt that I could be pro-life without only mentioning abortion, that I could be anti-death penalty without sacrificing something to some competing political party.

This is, I think, why I defend Francis (and why many other Millennials, especially converts and reverts, do). The old framework has simply faded away, and once-seemingly-important marriages (America-Christianity, Republicans-Abortion, Democrats-Social Justice) do not hold water for someone who grew up and began practicing when I did. And, frankly, I am happy about that—such a position is more flexible and confounds our secular peers. If one needs evidence that the old days are past, simply look to the now all-but-dead Catholic-GOP alliance.

Does Pope Francis do wrong? Absolutely. We differ on many matters, especially liturgically. But I am also humble (I hope and pray) enough to recognize that I am not always right (and that even if I were, no pope would ever completely agree with me). So, considering my past and the times in which we live, I am honored to be alive now, to live under Francis’ gentle authority and loving rebukes. And so, I will continue defending him as both the servus servorum Dei and as the man whom the Holy Spirit has chosen—a man for the moment, uprooted from the polarizing mentality still held by far too many.

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