Fr. Dwight Longenecker Ponders Pope Francis

Is he a Reformer or a Revolutionary?

Dude. All I know is that Sir Elton John likes him. That ought to be divine approval enough for anybody.

Seriously, what interests me is how Francis keeps being perceived as somehow uniquely humble (in apparent contradistinction to Benedict). This is weird for anybody who paid any attention to Benedict, who is a profoundly gentle, modest, respectful, and humble man.

So why this perception difference? I suspect it has to do with the fact that Benedict is obviously an introvert while Francis clearly likes to get out among people and is manifestly extroverted (rather like John Paul). The tendency, particularly with extroverts like Elton John, is to perceive introverts as standoffish snobs. And when you combine that with Benedict’s love for liturgical beauty, the assumption of our culture is (wrongly, but almost inevitably) “Prideful prelate concerned with silk and lace and not with people”. It’s a deeply unfair judgment to Benedict, but I think that’s the genesis of this perception.

The problem is that Pack Journalism runs with such narratives and then Catholics start repeating them and picking sides in the “Whose the Better Guy?” contest. I think Benedict greatly feared that and has happily ducked out of public view in order to not create such proto-schismatic thinking: which is not small testimony to the truth of how deeply humble a man he is.

I can’t feel anything but gratitude for both these men. They are gifts far beyond our desserts. Thanks be to God for them.

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  • Andy

    I think that Pope Francis is neither a reformer or a revolutionary. He is a man elected with guidance from the Holy Spirit trying to a job that by most accounts may be well nigh impossible. I believe that just as the conservative Catholics cast Benedict as the savior of the church, the liberal are casting Francis as the savior of the Church. Neither man can play that role – we have a Savior, he died and rose for us.
    Both men are teaching the gospel. Benedict more as a professor, because that is what he was – he taught University theology courses. He appreciated the pomp of the papacy because he had a historical understanding of it. Francis is preaching the same gospel, more bluntly, perhaps as a person used to teaching younger folks and working directly with a laity that is not highly educated. He does not disvalue the pomp, he sees it a block to reaching the non-educated laity.
    If Pope Francis si a reformer I think he will reform the governance structure of the church, which needs reforming. he may move the church to a more approachable stance. Not that Benedict was not trying to do this, or did not want the church to be approachable.
    I think what we see are different styles of the same message. To the liberals I would say stop gloating and dreaming- he will not change church policy, teachings or beliefs. To the conservatives I would say essentially the same thing – stop worrying and wailing – he will not change church policy, teachings or beliefs. But to both so what if he does – if that is where God through the Holy Spirit leads him why should we worry?

    • vox borealis

      Of course he won’t change Church teaching, but how can you have confidence he won’t change *policies*? As for beliefs, I’m not sure what you mean. Are you referring to hat the Church believes (dogma and teaching and the like)? If so, then of course he won’t change that. Or do you mean what *people* believe (e.g. lay Catholics or even non-Catholics)? In that case, how can we know what impact he’ll have on what they believe?

      • Andy

        What policies might he change – and if he does so what? Policies are not teaching, they are how an operation s run. For me I don’t worry about policies – one he has suggested that needs attention is baptism – not the rite, but welcoming a child to Christ. I think that is good. He seems not terribly judgmental, a model for the church, I think that is good.
        As far as what “people” believe, those who don’t agree with what the church teaches won’t be affected. I remember when Benedict bece pope and one group of Catholics was terrified while another rejoiced. Now it appears the roles are reversed. Is it possible that the election of Francis is telling both sides that he God doesn’t play favorites as long as the. message stays the same?

        • vox borealis

          I have no idea what *message* there might be. After all, there have been truly awful popes in the past, and I am not convinced that God was planning any special message with their papacies. As for saying “so what” to changing policies, that seems a little naive, no? I mean, surely some policies are better than others. Or do you believe that the Church’s policies, which include its general pastoral approach at any given time are not important or have no effect? Does that mean Vatican II’s effort to have the Church engage the modern world in new ways was, basically, irrelevant? As for those not believing what the Church teaches being unaffected by papal actions or policies, do you really believe that? According to that line of reasoning, popes have virtually no impact on evangelization whatsoever. I have a hard time buying that. Also, you don’t consider how the reactions of non-believers may vary in reaction to different popes and different papal policies (will they be aggressive, hostile, conciliatory, curious, more turned off, less turned off, etc.). How will different popes and papal policies affect how the Church engages in what most people see as secular issues. Will the pope be more or less effective in promoting specific human rights on the global stage? etc

          You will note in all of this that I am not taking a”side” one way or the other on Francis or Benedict or any other pope. Rather, I contend that your “so what” response is, I believe, flawed.

  • meunke

    The whole “Francis is actually humble and loves people (implied ending: as opposed to that pompous, hateful BXVI)!” Yeah, getting really sick of that. Even some of the coverage in the Catholic media is indirectly supporting that by total fawning “OH!! AHH!!!” coverage that I don’t remember seeing for Benedict.

    Every single tiny thing he might do slightly different results in a tornado of coverage: “OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! HE’S WEARING BROWN SHOES INSTEAD OF RED!! OMGOMGOMG!!!! WE HAVE TO WRITE 5,000 articles about why that’s totally different and refreshing after years of that Hitler Youth guy! OH! If he makes one more personal call to an old friend back home I might just faint in ECSTASY!!!!!!!

    Please don’t get me wrong. I very much am a fan of our new Holy Father. I’ve managed to keep up with a lot of what he’s done and said and I think the Holy Spirit gave us a FANTASTIC shepherd!

    I’m I’m just REALLY damn tired of the media treating him like Justin Bieber fan girls while at the same time treating Benedict as if he’s a post flop Milli Vanilli.

    • Andy

      I never compared Francis to Justin Bieber, I can’t see him in a tank top. And Benedict to Milli Vanilli – wow can he lip synch. Love the description, but I do agree, the press, all of it is making to much of these two fine men.

  • opencurtin

    Pope Benedict was not into the lime light side of been Pope in fact he never wanted it he wanted to retire but JPII asked him to stay on and I think he was like a lightening rod for ANGER by the press over the child abuse scandals he took it all and by the time he resigned he was worn out , he has set the stage for Pope Francis who now is seen as a breath of fresh air which is true as he was not a part of the curia like Benedict before he became Pope so in some ways he was tainted by this fact also the press called him Gods Rottweiler because of the job he had at the Vatican dealing with troublesome issues of the church but Benedict is far from this he is a gentle private man , I think Pope Francis papacy can benefit from following a reserved person like Benedict as his surely suffered having to follow JPIIs, Pope Benedict has nothing to prove he wrote 2 books on the life of Christ also encyclicals for a man who became Pope late in life he did s lot and he also left on his own terms not letting ego and Power get in the way of his judgement , Pope Francis papacy can only benefit from having such an esteemed predecessor !

    • jaybird1951

      Wow, that is one long stream-of-consciousness sentence. You are are a runner up for the William Faulkner prize. 🙂

  • Will

    I have seen discussion about changes or no changes in the liturgy with Pope Benedict versus Pope Francis. There does appear to be differences that might filter down to Masses.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    The media doesn’t bother me much–they don’t know how to report on important people without a celebrity perspective. What bothers me (enough that it wakes me up at night sometimes) is the Catholics who can’t seem to accept the differences between popes. I saw it a lot after JP II died–people were so caught up in how much they had liked or dislike him that Benedict XVI became either a pale comparison without his own perspective and strengths the Church needed, or he would “fix” everything. Now, we have the opposite swing, Catholics either dismissing B XVI and all he did in favor of FI because they like his style better, or Catholics bemoaning how FI will ruin all the good B XVI did. I guess I expect adults to recognize that a different man from a different background and perspective can still be good, and do right, and uphold truth, even if he does it with a different style. It’s not picking teams for the Super-Dooper Catholic Playoffs.

    • Rosemarie


      Could it be that JPII hung around so long that we’re not used to a succession of popes with different personal styles? Add to that the fact that we all knew so well what JPII’s papacy was like; so many people inside and outside the Church paid so much attention to his travels, statements, canonizations, etc. for so long that his ways became very familiar to us. So maybe seeing another man dressed in white but doing things differently is not so easy for us to get used to.

      Did anyone pay such close attention to the pope, say, just one hundred years ago? Was the media griping about different styles of leadership when Benedict XV replaced Pope St. Pius X, or when Pius XI replaced him, or when Pius XII replaced *him*? Or is this just a very recent thing now with so many ‘pope-watchers”?

      • S. Murphy

        Maybe it had more to do with JPII’s putting a spotlight on the papacy – being the big, charismatic personality that he was. Pope Benedict would probably just as soon have stayed in Rome or Castel Gandolfo and written books, and encyclicals, but he recognized that world-travel had become part of the office – so he did his best to combine following his own charism – extremely lucid catechesis, informed by a long lifetime of deep scholarship, with the expectations created by his predecessor. In the meantime, Catholics and everybody else have gotten used to the Pope being a very active public figure, so now that we have Francis, executing his office in his own fearlessly idiosyncratic way, everybody is paying much more attention than we would have before 1978.

      • Rebecca Fuentes

        I’m sure that’s part of it. I’m young enough that I had only known JP II as pope. The whole process of electing a new pope was new, and I was excited about B XVI. I am excited about F I.

        Everything is much more in the spotlight, we get access to the opinions of complete strangers from anywhere and everywhere, so I am frustrated without use. Still, I hate how some Catholics treat a new pope the way they treat a new president. He’s either the savior who will usher in the 1000 yrs of peace, or the antiChrist.

  • Newp Ort

    this is not complicated

    Benedict as pope was a super genius scholar and kept a cat in the papal apartment

    Francis washed the feet of people of questionable holiness, presumably including short people with their tiny little shoes on their nasty little feet (and before you start nitpicking, certainly the shoes were removed first)

    therefore the inescapable logical extension is they are both humble and gentle and faithful to church each in their own unique way

    • stefanie

      the cat in the papal apartment is an urban legend — someone wrote a fanciful picture book about it and I’m sure made some $$– but Papa B never actually had a cat there. He WAS however, friendly to cats — would feed them and talk to the ones he met while walking around Rome/VC.

      • Notquite Archimedes

        Not to be catty, but Bel Giorgio was no legend.

    • Rebecca

      Pope Benedict also washed their feet.

      • Newp Ort

        If you don’t they track litter all over the place.

  • Thank you for pointing out something I always wanted to say. Popes are still people and they have individual personalities, backstories, and ways of approaching the world.

    • Newp Ort

      Popes are people too; right on.

      And thank you for putting that hand on your hip cuz it’s SASSY (in a good (very good) way).

  • Elmwood

    Mark, I’m disappointed in your taste in music. Elton John? Horrible stuff.

    • Newp Ort

      some awful stuff, and a few all time rock classics. you really dislike b-b-b-benny and the jets?

    • chezami

      Kiki Dee was dreamy!

      • Newp Ort

        Anybody says otherwise, they must burning out their fuse, up there, alone.

        And if you wanna fight about it, it’s alright with my schedule on Saturday night.

  • Erikhnh

    One thing I ran into the other day, (my wife and her entire family are evangelical/pentacostal Protestants) was that since there are so many people of all faiths/non-faiths that are really enjoying the ‘breath of fresh air’ that Pope Francis brings to the Vatican, then he must be the biblical Anti-Christ that will fool everyone. Blew my mind.

    • Rosemarie


      Yep. That’s the evangelical mindset. They believe that the antichrist is going to be well-loved by the world so whenever a very popular world leader/figure comes along (Gorbachev, Clinton, Obama, etc.) he must be the antichrist.

      • Erikhnh

        The vote’s not in on Obama, yet! 🙂

        • Rosemarie


          The hype surrounding him during the 2008 election did have that false messiah vibe to it, but that’s long since faded.

          Back in 1999, I saw Fr. Benedict Groeschel in person at a public event. He dismissed the idea that Clinton was the antichrist, saying, “Some of these politicians are too stupid to be the antichrist. The devil is fairly intelligent.” Maybe that still applies.

  • ivan_the_mad

    The Hermeneutic of Continuity or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pope

  • hernan gonzalez

    “Francis clearly likes to get out among people and is manifestly extroverted (rather like John Paul)”

    Debatable . Before 2013, you could ask any catholic in Buenos Aires about his opinion of bishop Bergoglio, and you probably would hear good and bad things, but almost none would describe him as an extrovert (like certainly JP2 was), rather the contrary. It could be fair to say that B16 was more confortable dealing with ideas than with people (not a bad or a good thing per se). The first part of the sentence is more probably true, but it’s not an extrovert-vs-introvert thing.