The Quiet Menace: Fixating on Francis, Missing the Point – UPDATED

The Quiet Menace: Fixating on Francis, Missing the Point – UPDATED March 27, 2013

Having just gone to confession after mass this morning, it was not my intention to get into a little tiff with a media outlet on Twitter, but being who I am, I couldn’t let it go when I saw one of those lazy, thoughtless sneers cross my timeline, to the effect that Pope Francis (good guy) was refusing to stay in (bad guy) “Pope Benedict’s luxurious apartments.”

I needed to disabuse the writer of the notion that Pope Benedict owned anything, including a “luxurious apartment” but that the papal apartment in the Vatican was simply that — the apartment of whoever happens to be pope, used by every pope since 1906, until now. Francis has chosen not to use it, and that’s perfectly fine, but I find myself objecting strenuously when I see people trying to use Francis’ simple tastes as a kind of hammer against his predecessors. “See,” they imply, “he’s a good, humble pope who is united to the poor, not like all of those other wasteful, pampered popes who didn’t care about the poor, before him.”

They would pretend that before this month, the poor weren’t on the church’s radar, or the pope’s. To what purpose? Well, mostly to warp a narrative and foment the easiest sort of hate, which is hate rooted in empty cynicism and ignorance.

I asked some of those who engaged me on twitter whether they would soon be divesting themselves of all luxuries, since owning luxuries, or pretty things, or well-made things is insensitive to the poor.

No one answered.

Since they seemed to feel strongly that as long as the poor exist, a person in leadership should set his tent among them, resisting luxuries or comforts for himself, I asked whether they thought the American President should forego a round of golf, or an expensive dinner, or a “luxury” vacation, for as long as there are people in his country struggling to get by.

No one answered.

I didn’t bother asking whether — since simplicity is now admirable and finer things are not — they would be surrendering their Starbucks coffee for a humble cup of Folgers, each morning.

I didn’t ask because, being a coffee snob, myself, I already know the answer. In a world of rampant materialism and fading prosperity, Pope Francis’ example of simplicity is already challenging me in my own not-extravagant life, and he’s challenging others, too. Eventually, those carrying on about how admirable a model he is for the rest of us will — unless they have no consciences to prick — find themselves roiled by our pope’s humble tastes, because they’ll either have to address their own consumption or face a truth about themselves that they can currently hide beneath righteous moralizing.

Interestingly enough, there is a sort of flip-side to the secular press’ expedient, semi-mystified fixation with Francis’ simplicity, and it exists within the church, among those of us who are confused, or perhaps a little concerned, about what Francis’ humility means, and how far he means to take it. I can understand some of that concern. While Jorge Bergoglio is now Francis, he is first and foremost Peter, and I “get” what some Catholics mean when they say that if Francis were “really as humble as he seems” he would look at the papal trappings he finds uncomfortable or distasteful and simply acquiesce to them, out of humility for the office, because in the end none of them are about him.

I understand that they are not so much doubting Francis’ humility as expressing fear for the sake of Peter and how he is understood and received.

Some of my friends are liking Francis well enough but they’re still “waiting and trusting” to see what he means by his actions; they’re concerned that he means to minimize the role of Peter by subsuming it to his role as Bishop of Rome. And some are even a little hurt that, rather than giving the world a bigtime Holy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper at the the Lateran Basilica that we can all watch, he is celebrating that important liturgy in a small house of detention, among fifty young men and women in trouble, many of them Muslims.

Francis is making a point that needs making, and he is doing it by simply being who he is. I think he really is that humble, and since he is no idiot, I believe he is aware that, to an extent, when he puts off the “trappings of the office” he is raising eyebrows. The reality, though, is that Francis is only putting into action what his predecessor taught.

The eyebrow-raising may be necessary if, as I suspect, Francis is engaging in a long strategy of change and renewal — an action begun by Benedict XVI when he announced his resignation. Benedict knew the world had stopped paying attention, so he did the one thing that could get its attention — its serious attention. In so doing, he gave the Holy Spirit room to move.

Now that the church has the world’s attention — and the Holy Spirit has that room to move — Francis is quickly taking away every superficial objection to the church, and thus exposing the world and its judgement to be the empty, profitless kvetching it is. If I may give a voice to Francis’ actions, they would sound like this:

“You didn’t like Peter in red shoes? Here is Peter in black. You didn’t like Peter in brocade? Here is Peter looking kind of disheveled. You didn’t like Peter being shy and standoffish? Here is Peter hopping down to kiss the face of a deformed man whose existance makes you uncomfortable — whose life you would deem of insufficient use and quality to be sustained! We Catholics know well enough to be careful what we ask for; you asked for this and you got it — now deal with it when this Peter upholds church teachings you will still hate and resent, only by then you won’t be able to hide behind a contrived “righteous indignation” on behalf of the poor; then you will have to admit to the reality of all you hate. Then, you will have to look inward, to the poverty within your own soul, and you will have to decide who and what you will serve, stripped of all illusions, unprotected by shabbily-erected narratives.”

The pope is still the pope, whether he uses the papal apartments or not; whether he calls himself the Bishop of Rome or not. Peter is still Peter whether he is on the throne or walking amongst those who need the healing grace of his shadow.

Benedict saw a Curia — and a church — in serious trouble; like a boxer pinned too long in a corner by a world bent on destruction, he understood that if the church was going to survive she needed to get back into the corner for some refreshment and restoration, and then come out swinging. He rang the bell and gave the church that chance.

Practically from the moment he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s, gazing with remarkable placidity upon the throng before him, it has been clear that this pope is a spiritual brawler — to the world, a quiet menace, because a spiritual brawler will smile and offer you nothing but ferocious tenderness, the kind that will impact, repeatedly, on the solar plexus, until we are breathless and ready for mercy. The world needs precisely this sort of pummeling — anything besides tenderness, and its guard would be forever up. As I have said before, everyone in turn, and in varying measures, is going to find something to love about Francis and something to be bugged by; we’re all going to be challenged out of our comfort zones.

Stop worrying, and watch. It’s going to be fascinating. Nothing Francis is doing is in any way going to change who and what Peter is; in fact, he is going to help clarify to the world exactly who Peter is — the man around whom the Office was created, and who has been, perhaps, too encumbered by some of its walls. Before he ever had a mitre or a staff, he walked among the crowds and took counsel with other apostles. This particular iteration of Peter may actually be the one under whom the unifying work of Benedict may actually blossom into something solid and lasting. In that case, there is a good chance Peter will want to create a council that includes reps from every continent and from Orthodoxy. Be ready for that.

But he will still be Peter; still the Vicar of Christ and the keeper of the Keys.

And too, different people have different needs. Benedict, the introvert, needed some space and shelter to recharge. Francis, the extrovert needs people close by for his energy. Sometimes a thing can be that simple.

So, I do wish my fellow-Catholics who are feeling out-of-sorts or uncertain about the news and images coming from Rome would be at peace, and trust that the Holy Spirit knows what he is about. I have no problem with this Peter eschewing a world-broadcasted Holy Thursday at Lateran, however much I would have loved to watch it, because I think he is trying to tell us something: that we should stop fixating on the man of Peter or the office, and look more deeply at serving, healing and evangelizing within our own communities, just as he is doing, as Bishop of Rome. And this is nothing more than a return to our roots. The church was never built from Rome outward, but from communities upward, to Rome. Perhaps that is how her restoration will come, too.

“Francis, restore my church.” John Paul II talked about the “Springtime of Evangelization” and Benedict propelled us into the “New Evangelization.” Well, we’re being shown something new, alright. After a long, cold winter, something is springing up from our roots like a shoot that surprises us.

I feel excited. I trust in the promise. And I am so grateful for Benedict’s trust in it, too. We need always to keep our eyes on the long view. Peter does not think in days and moments, but in centuries. I’m not worried. Whatever we may not understand, the Holy Spirit does.

Pope Francis’ Coat of Arms has been modified, slightly. Interesting to note that the simplification of the papal arms (Mitre instead of crown) came from Pope Benedict XVI.

Update II:
Pope’s actions speak louder than his words

Archbishop Chaput:
Francis is the Medicine Needed
Francis and Assisi via New Advent

New Shoot image courtesy of

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