A Pope Like No Other

A Pope Like No Other September 18, 2018
Pope Francis (then-Cardinal Bergoglio) washing the feet of a young AIDS patient, Holy Thursday, 2001

“When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward—in a word, a man.” —G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

I was in my office, in my day job, the day Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the 265th successor to St. Peter.

A lot of time passed between when the white smoke first poured from the copper chimney on top of the Sistine Chapel to the announcement of who the next Pope would be, but eventually the door to the library loggia in the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica opened and a French cardinal flanked by two men in surplices walked out. The French cardinal announced “Habemus Papam!” and read an announcement in Latin that ended, “Franciscus!”

The crowd roared.

There is a room near the Sistine Chapel where the man who has just accepted his election as Pope changes from his red cassock to papal white. It is said that this is when the full burden of what he has just agreed to sinks in, and he breaks down crying. Because of this, the room is called the Room of Tears.

Cardinal Bergoglio—who was now Pope Francis—must have cried for a long time, given the pause between the announcement and when he finally appeared on the loggia. He gazed upon the crowd below and said his first public words as Pope: “Buonasera.” Good evening.

Reportedly, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he traveled to Rome seldom and even reluctantly, when he had business that he could conduct no other way. And once he concluded his business, he flew home, as quick as he could.

When, following the 2005 conclave, he was tipped that he might be offered a position as head of a Vatican dicastery, he declined, saying, “Please, I would die in the Curia.”

Now, save for papal trips abroad, he would never leave.

I cannot speak for the rest of the world, but American conservatives hated Pope Francis almost from the beginning, not even pausing for a glass of celebratory wine before they marked the new Pontiff as an enemy. Before even an hour passed, my newsfeed on Facebook was filled with anti-Francis vitriol pouring forth from right wing Catholics. Pope Francis was a liberal. Pope Francis was a liberation theologian. A Jesuit, he could not be trusted. Worst of all, Pope Francis hated the Traditional Latin Mass.

Me? In those days I still called myself a Traditionalist, but I did not join the chorus of conservatives denouncing him. Instead, a Spanish-speaking friend of mine was busy finding then-Cardinal Bergoglio’s old homilies and addresses and translating them into English. We liked what we read. Even better, Cardinal Bergoglio had a few connections to G.K. Chesterton. This was exciting.

Later that evening, this picture appeared in my newsfeed. Cardinal Bergoglio used public transportation in Buenos Aires. And he lived in an apartment, not the archbishop’s palace. Then this picture appeared, of him kissing the feet of an AIDS patient at a Holy Thursday Mass. That is when I fell in love with him. And I have yet to fall out of love for him.

The next day, the new Pope ventured into Rome to pray at the Basilica of St. Mary Major—and pay his hotel bill. This is the hotel he checked into when he arrived in Rome during the Interregnum. When the conclave started, he moved into the Casa Santa Marta with the other cardinals. Most likely he intended, once the conclave was over, to spend one last night there, pay his bill the following morning, and fly home.

The Holy See owns this hotel, so now that he was Pope, Francis really did not have to pay. It was, for all intents and purposes, his hotel.

Just look at the faces in the picture and imagine the conversation.

“Uh, Holiness, it’s your hotel now. You don’t really need to do this.”
“No, I want to pay my bill.”
To the confused clerk: “Ok, I checked in under another name. Under B.”

As time wore on, two things became clear. One, this was a Pope like no other. And two, there was nothing Pope Francis could do that his detractors would not find a reason to complain about. For instance, in the weeks following the conclave, it sunk in that he would remain in the Casa Santa Marta and not move into the papal apartments.

The critics howled, but, I ask, where were the papal apartments of Peter? Of Pope Clement? The “church militant” fetishists with their combat rosaries and spiritual ammo cans (I’m not kidding) ironically hate Pope Francis because, if I may appropriate their imagery, he chooses a shelter half and a sleeping bag on the front lines over the cozy garrison life of a gilded palace.

Then there were his impromptu press conferences, often given on airplanes—especially the infamous flight back to Rome from Brazil in July 2013. “Who am I to judge?” remains for conservatives a focal point of their hatred for the Pontiff. The full quote, his answer to a reporter’s question about a “gay lobby” in the Vatican, was, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

This was no different than what the two previous Popes had said about gay people: that they are our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and that we are to love them, not judge or hate them.

But Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both academics, couched their teachings in academic jargon, making themselves easy to ignore. Pope Francis, not an academic, is direct. You cannot ignore him. And this, I think ultimately is what his detractors hate so much.

Pope Francis grabs our hearts. He says, “Is this thing alive? Does it beat with the Love of our crucified Lord, the source of all love? And if not, why not? Why is it dead stone? What are you going to do about it?”

For those willing to listen, Pope Francis is the shock that revives dead hearts, as he revived my dead heart that day in March 2013, when he was elevated to the Chair of St. Peter.

The past few months have probably been the most difficult of his controversial papacy. And Pope Francis has erred, including one time, egregiously. It’s best if you read about it here, rather than me rehash it all again.

As Chesterton says in the quote above, Pope Francis is a man. Before he is anything else—an archbishop, a holy man, a Pope—he is what God made him: a man, a human being. Chesterton adds:

And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.

I cannot understand the ingratitude of the Pope Francis haters. In Pope Francis, Jesus Christ has laid out a banquet table of goodness and holiness and love, but the detractors turn their noses up at it in favor of a trash Dumpster. May God forgive them, and may he revive and break our dead, stony hearts, before it’s too late for us.


Picture in the public domain –SPD

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