Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Old Order Passes: Francis I

So what to make of the new Pope?  Well, no one who has his or her feet planted firmly on planet earth expected a pope who was going to change the Church’s position on abortion, same-sex relations, the ordination of women to the priesthood or probably even contraception.  And Pope Francis won’t.  But while change of substance would be an unrealistic expectation (excepting of course the bread and the wine), a change of style is not only a possibility but a necessity.  Most of us Catholics can live with the dichotomies of doctrine and every day practical decisions but what is squeezing so many of our sisters and brothers out of the Church is the doctrinaire tone in which the magisterium is being shoved down our throats.  As I have written (and said) elsewhere, everyone knows these days what the Catholic Church is against; few can tell you what it is for.  This is a disastrous strategy for public relations—or what we call public relations in “church talk, “the new evangelization.” 
To be fair to all those concerned, this counter-productive tone cannot be attributed to the former Benedict XVI or the late John Paul II.  It is the sin (and I use that term deliberately) of middle management.  Incompetent but mitered boobs like Archbishop Lori or Cardinals Law and Burke or Bishops Olmstead, Martino, Morlino, or Dewane have done and continue to do incomparable damage to the Church with the arrogance and narrow-mindedness with which they attempt to “teach” the faithful the moral code of the Church.  This shrill and pharisaical tone often drifts down to the level of the local parishes where priests who lack a shepherd’s heart (not to mention common sense) bully their parishioners with inane and inappropriate dictums that only alienate good souls rather than bring them to comprehend the teachings of the Church and follow the call of the Gospel. 
Pope Francis is certainly signaling a change of tone.  The name Francis is the first and foremost signal.  An obvious reference to the poverello of Assisi, everyone immediately remembered the admonition of Christ appearing in the San Damiano Crucifix to Saint Francis: Rebuild my Church which is in ruins.   The simple down to earth tone of Francis’ first day as pope is a good sign of a pope who has his feet on the ground.  
Something that has been overlooked by most commentators is the argument that allegedly took place in the “room of tears” as Francis was being vested in the papal habit.  He refused to put on the lacy rochet and fur-trimmed velvet mozetta (short cape) which the pope wears for formal occasions.  Monsignor Marini, the papal master of ceremonies was insistent—the pope does not appear in the simple white simar (cassock) for formal occasions; the Pope was insistent—the velvet and fur is not his style.  The Pope won.  The papal simar—a plain white cassock with an elbow length over-cape—is the normal working habit of the pope.  (A prelate or even a simple priest can wear the same sort of cassock though in black; a prelate’s is edged in the color of his rank, the priest’s is plain black.)  It is the ecclesiastical equivalent of a business suit.  For formal occasions a bishop or higher ecclesiastic wears a cassock in the color of his rank, a rochet (a shorter white camisole, sometimes trimmed in lace according to the taste—or lack thereof—of the wearer), and a mozetta—a short cape in the color and material of his cassock.  Popes traditionally wore a mozetta of red velvet trimmed in ermine in the winter and of scarlet silk in the summer.  Paul VI did away with the velvet and fur variation, Benedict brought it back.  Francis apparently has ditched it again.  This all seems to be a bit of a tempest in the ladies’ department but it is significant that Francis is both eschewing the revived pomp of the late papacy and telling the old guard that their days of control are over.  He will set the tone.  Of course it will only make the boys who like to get dressed up in fur and yards of silk look even more outré but I suspect that Raymond Burke for one is too slow-witted to notice that he has become a low-class relic of a passed époque.     
All this is a good beginning but while we can’t expect a change in substance, we do need to see a substantial change of style.  Francis is sending all the right signals but let us pray that as he begins to speak he assures us he is also a Pope who listens and listens carefully to his flock.  Again, we are not children.  Like the Pope himself we are educated adults.  That does not mean that we don’t have things to learn but it does mean that we need to be educated as adults.  There needs to be conversation.  There has to be a freedom of discussion without topics being “off limits” of discussion.  The methodologies and presuppositions of the material being taught must to be open to critique.  As a former professor and as a man with a scientific (chemistry) background, it can be hoped that Pope Francis understands this and will not be patronizing.  But then Benedict and John Paul (and Paul VI and John XXIII) were not patronizing men.  The problem is middle management.  Let us hope that Francis will begin choosing intelligent and educated pastors for the flock—bishops like Sean O’Malley and Timothy Dolan and Rowan Williams (whoops, wrong Church) and Gerald Kicanas, and Howard Hubbard and William Curlin and John Ricard, and Robert Morneau, and Mort Smith, and Bernard McLaughlin.  Just give us good shepherds with listening and attentive hearts and we will be fine.  Solomon asked for a lebh shomea (a listening heart); it worked for him and it will work for Francis I. 

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