Immune to the Francis Effect

Immune to the Francis Effect September 28, 2015

Looking back over this past weekend, I’m not sure whether I can pinpoint the exact moment when I was completely and irreversibly Francis’d out. But that moment did come, and once it came there was no denying it. Thoroughbreds like Allen and Ivereigh could devote the remainders of their careers to mining the pope’s numerous statements for epochal meaning; Lindenman was ready to scratch.

Being Catholic involves the awareness of belonging to an eternal and transcendent reality, a communion of saints that cuts across time. Wrapping one’s head around this produces a certain self-abandonment, but not the same kind as focusing one’s attention on the same this-worldly events as countless millions of contemporaries. Prompting reflection, the first fosters a mature view of one’s place in history and the cosmos. The second tends to sweep one into a mass movement.

The point here isn’t to separate the Church’s earthly and heavenly – or, if you prefer, horizontal and vertical — dimensions. That can’t be done. But I’m deeply wary of earthly goings-on that demand the same focused intensity as the marriage supper of the Lamb, especially for an entire weekend. By prescribing intellectual and emotional reactions, convention, contagion and peer pressure effectively micromanage the soul.

There is something very contagious and memelike about the spread of Francis’ popularity. When the pope visited Istanbul, just across the Sea of Marmara from where I was teaching, I could probably have begged a day off to see him. But the weather was rotten and the trip would have been long and I’d have had to teach make-up lessons some other time – Turks haven’t heard of “personal days.” Besides, the papal visit just didn’t seem like that big a deal. My students wouldn’t have cared unless Francis had brought Lionel Messi with him. Here and now, I’m positively thrashed with the awareness that not feeling the joy makes me a turd in the apostolic punch bowl.

I confess, I have a lifelong mistrust for enthusiasm, for big resolutions undertaken under the influence of emotive language. Maybe it’s the memory of all those sales jobs where employees were exhorted to show a positive attitude and examined ruthlessly for signs of non-compliance. With the same ruthlessness, we strove to pass this enthusiasm along to the borrower, making extravagant promises, offering slogan-like non-answers to reasonable questions, and creating a sense of urgency that was legitimate only as far as the health of our own pipelines was concerned.

Whatever the reason, I can’t help, team spirit be damned, feeling a little perturbed at the testimony of Israeli journalist Chemi Shalev, who confesses in Ha’artez that observing Francis’ visit from afar has made him want to be “Catholic for a day.” Now, if the gentleman were to decide that he wanted to become Catholic for a lifetime, I’d be happy to welcome him home. But it turns out that what he envies us most is Francis’ person and the power it appears to wield.

In his words, the “grandmaster of modern miracles” has “turned pretentious politicians into gushing groupies, morphed jaundiced journalists into babbling cheerleaders, turned the rich and famous and the high and mighty into frantic fans aching for the wave of his and or the glimpse of his eye.” Don’t get me wrong – I don’t doubt that the Holy Spirit works through the pontiff. But impressing people and generating spiritual highs are not its most potent manifestations. These effects are parlor tricks, and have also been pulled by some very unworthy people.

In an interview with America Magazine, Rusty Reno put it very well when he suggested that the pope’s Jesuit formation has stamped him with a certain “rhetorical extremism” and a determination to push his charism to the limits. Francis, said Reno, is “a disruptor. Many things need to be disrupted, but, then again, some things don’t need to be disrupted. I’m all in favor of breaking the things that need to be broken, but it’s dangerous when you start breaking things.”

Nothing lends more romance to the act of breaking than enthusiasm. When Maria Shriver writes, “I don’t want to go back to the way it was before Pope Francis came to America,” I have to wonder how much of last Thursday’s world she now finds intolerable, and what, in concrete terms, she’d like to change. If history teaches us anything, it’s that things can always get worse, especially when people act with the best of intentions.

Jesus himself was relatively modest in his practical goals – or at least in his timetable. Unlike Simon bar Kokhba, he didn’t revolt against Rome. Unlike Muhammad, he didn’t found a state. Christian civilization, if I may be allowed to call it by that name, built itself up gradually over many centuries, and borrowed heavily from the civilizations – and even the uncivilized tribal traditions – of the past. It can’t go on the CV of any fired-up would-be demiurge. The Maria Shrivers out there would do well to remember that Rome wasn’t built – or rebuilt – in a day.

Fittingly for a man who relies on it so often, Francis lends himself best to metaphor – he can look like an emperor waiting for the barbarians or a bullying New York mayor. Rusty Reno offers a complementary view when he says that Francis’ Jesuit formation has transformed him into a “clerical Green Beret,” and made him want to mint innumerable copies among the faithful. He tends to forget, warns Reno, that the Church also needs “ordinary soldiers…cooks, camp commandants, and priests who keep the parish running and aren’t on the peripheries.”

Setting aside the question of what in blue blazes Mr. Reno had in mind when he spoke of camp commandants, I’d say he shot expert on that target. I’ve been to the peripheries – judging by my rent, it could be argued I’m living there still. And, though the experience has imparted to me a certain fellow-feeling for the wretched of the earth, it’s also taught me the incalculable value of safety, serenity and privacy.

No amount of enthusiasm can make me forget that, or my own very human limitations. Maybe one day, following a long, mustard seed-like growth, I’ll evolve into a Francis-type disciple. However, until then, if the pope wants a truly diverse Church, he’ll leave standing a few of the less glamorous MOS’s for me and my kind.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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