Billy Crystal used to do a great bit mimicking Edward G. Robinson in The Ten Commandments:
An echo of that appeared in my email the other day from a traditionally-minded Catholic who — having taken previous exception to my having “made excuses” for Pope Francis’ very different style — was incensed over the news that the “Cold-call Pope” had done it again, to great general confusion.
The writer was at pains to be civil, but between the lines, I could almost see Edward G. Robinson slipping a stogie in his mouth and jeering, “Ya! Ya! How do you like your Francis, now?”
Well, I like him just fine, thanks, but I do wish he wasn’t so very fond of “making messes.”
In case you’ve been living under a rock, an Argentine woman wrote a letter to Pope Francis expressing her feelings about being unable to receive Holy Communion because she has been married to a previously-divorced man whose first marriage has — presumably — never been declared sacramentally null.
We presume, because no one really knows anything beyond the fact that Francis called this woman. From there, her husband went on to Facebook and declared that Francis had released her from the church’s doctrine, pronouncing, “you’ve done nothing wrong.”
Not only does that seem highly doubtful, but without solid context, this is fodder for fury, and fury there began.
The Facebook entry, and subsequent reactions, embellishments, and second-guesses, flew from Argentina to Italy to England to the U.S. Imagine a game of telephone: even when played in one language, by the time the last person hears it, the message has become distorted beyond all recognition. Several language translations, combined with the usual high hysteria that characterizes social media can only promise to deepen distortion.
It makes a mess.
As Terry Mattingly notes, no one really knows anything, but that’s not stopping a ton of ink from being spilled, nor a flurry of opinion being formed. Some are raising up Easter hallelujahs that it might be true. Others are leaving awful combox messages at sites I won’t link to, expressing hopes that we’ll “soon see a new pope.”
My correspondent (choosing to ignore the fact that my posting rate is way down from the norm, for many reasons) had assumed that I was ashamed, or embarrassed, by Francis’ move, hence my silence. I’m neither. I just saw no point in writing about a story that everyone is talking about, while knowing next-to-nothing.
I think Dwight Longenecker did a good job of quickly summing things up, laying out how complicated marriage issues can be for a parish priest to address pastorally, given the infinite number of variables and particulars that can attach to individual cases. He also wonders whether the pope understands the boundaries that come with the papal office and simply rejects them, or whether he is simply making mistakes.
Among Francis’ numerous strengths is his clear reliance upon the Holy Spirit and the will of God; he demonstrates this whenever he wanders into crowds, or allows his car to be surrounded by people; he clearly believes that, from one minute to the next, whether he lives or dies is wholly in God’s hands, and so he doesn’t worry about it. That sort of faith is admirable and instructive to all of us, even if it gives his security detail fits.
When bringing that same trust into his cold calls, though, Francis doesn’t have the benefit of any pre-or-post security folk who can provide at least a modicum of crowd control. He talks to someone, that person (or someone nearby) throws it into Facebook and suddenly the “telephone” game begins and everything is unloosed — it is released unto the air, as it were — and that is one of the favorite battlegrounds of the devil, the “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience”.
The cold calls, (and for that matter the unusual interviews) in and of themselves, are not problematic in theory. Difficulties arise, however, when people take the pope’s words and begin to paraphrase, either because they have not bothered to take notes, or because (as is entirely possible) the thrill of talking to the pope contributes to only really hearing half of what he is saying.
When that happens, and the conversation is released “over the air”, the evil one gets his greedy hands on it and confusion reigns.
And the confusion is meant to divide; it’s meant to get the faithful shouting at each other, distrusting each other, jeering at each other, calling sides and ultimately undermining the Church’s understanding of Christ’s own words. The house divided against itself will not stand.
I’ve pooh-poohed the fears of some about Francis’ free-wheeling ways, but this incident may lend validity to some of their concerns; his cold-calls are private, pastoral conversations and we have no right to demand transcripts of them, but that means they become open-ended, unprotected conduits for misrepresentation, and even diabolical disorientation.
Think about it: an effective writer with nefarious intentions could compose a heart-rending letter to the Vatican, one that inspires Francis to get on the horn, and then — with a Vatican confirmation that yes, a call took place — the call’s recipient could spout all kinds of nonsense which, unprovable, could lay groundwork for doubt and division. Once those headlines are generated, they are like pillow feathers that — no matter how fast the clarification — can never be wholly collected and put back in place. Do that enough times, and mere chaos grows into open warfare.
I’m not saying that this Argentine lady wrote to the pope with anything but the best intentions. I’m merely imagining how the pope’s fondness for calling people could be exploited, and why the calls so often “make a mess.”
Everything we know about Pope Francis as Cardinal Bergoglio suggests that while he was sympathetic to the need for leadership to find a better way to teach and live “being church”, he was and is no smasher-of-doctrines.
That said, Pope Francis is not stupid. He’s media savvy enough to understand that his personal phone calls can become fodder for anyone with an agenda. That leads many to conclude that he either doesn’t care and is content to “make a mess” and let the Holy Spirit sort it out (an idea I reject because I do not believe Francis wants the destructive energy of chaos about him) or that he wants to create a buzz that will influence discussions at the Extraordinary Synod of the Family which will take place in October. That would be a manipulative, rather Machiavellian tactic suggesting a pope who works in bad faith, embracing very worldly tactics while fomenting confusion.
There is no confusion in Christ, and I believe Bergoglio is Christ’s man, so that scenario, too, I reject.
So, what is Pope Francis about with these cold calls, which open up the Body of Christ to such mayhem?
I keep thinking back to that first instant he came out to the balcony of Saint Peter’s after his election. He looked so dazed and overwhelmed, almost as though he didn’t know where he was; he seemed briefly befuddled, before he found his words.
Adjusting to any transition in life is difficult and the pope is quick to remind us that he is a man, like any other. I wonder if what we’re seeing is simply a pope trying to balance the core elements of his priesthood with the sometimes restricting office into which he has been thrust, and if occasionally — in his bounding, tireless desire to reach out and be present to the flock — he simply forgets that traditional papal discretion, which can seem so moribund, has evolved out of necessity, because the devil always takes what is uncontrolled and sows chaos with it.
I wonder if he really misses being a less visible, more intimately pastoral cleric and if that’s not simply colliding, in some respects, with his new duties. It would be a perfectly human and understandable struggle, and one that should cull from us our prayers for his sake, and for the sake of the church.
Fr. Dwight has followed up his post with another that notes some fallout from the phone call:
In this article on the story in London’s Daily Mail the pope is quoted as saying there is “no harm” in the woman receiving communion. The headline writer added to the pope’s words, so his comment now reads. “A little bread and wine ‘does no harm’”. Now, thanks to the papers, the pope is not only undermining the sacrament of marriage but he is referring to the Body of Christ and the Precious Blood as “A little bread and wine.”
Note that this not what the pope said, but a few extra words the headline writer put into the pope’s mouth.
We must therefore be extremely cautious about taking seriously any of the press reports on this story. Through ignorance and malevolence the members of the secular press will distort the church’s teaching any way they can.
On the other hand, the Vatican news office confirmed that the phone call took place and did not deny the gist of the pope’s comments as reported.
I’m a parish priest. Here is some further fallout from this incident at the local level: Yesterday a parishioner with marriage problems reports to me that her aunt called her from New York to say, “It’s okay for you to get divorced because the Pope said divorced people can go to communion. I saw it on the morning talk show!”
The very clearly articulated teaching of Christ Jesus is now in the clutches of the Prince of the Air, and it is quickly being distorted and trashed. I’m sure that was not the intention of the pope. It’s the Holy Spirit’s province, now, supported by our works and prayers.
All shall be well, by the way.
Speaking of “all shall be well”, that was really brought home to me thanks to this post by Rebecca Hamilton, who is finding herself not caring much about this story because the plate of her life is absolutely overfull with drama and heartache and a number of challenges. Reading her piece is an excellent way to put things in perspective. All the hand-wringing about Francis betrays a fundamental lack of faith — or maybe mere forgetfulness — that the gates of hell shall not prevail over this church. It’s like people saying “what shall we eat, what shall we wear” when Jesus has assured us that our Heavenly Father has it under control and “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
And speaking of Matthew, Chapter 6, Joseph Susanka’s recommended streaming video for this week is particularly apt and timely. After all, if Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli and Karol Józef Wojtyła can rise from humble beginnings and many challenges to become great popes and now saints…we may safely trust that God’s plan is both incomprehensible and sure.
Can I get an Amen?
Funny how this headline doesn’t get the same wide coverage as the other one, innit? Pope emphasizes ‘indissolubility of Christian matrimony’
Pope Francis on April 25 stressed the need for bishops and priests to give a “consistent witness” to Christian moral teaching, including the lifelong nature of Christian marriage, and to teach these truths “with great compassion.”
“The holiness and indissolubility of Christian matrimony, often disintegrating under tremendous pressure from the secular world, must be deepened by clear doctrine and supported by the witness of committed married couples,” Pope Francis said.
“Christian matrimony is a lifelong covenant of love between one man and one woman; it entails real sacrifices in order to turn away from illusory notions of sexual freedom and in order to foster conjugal fidelity.”