Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Indian Summer Pope

A few weeks back Pope Francis had to cancel several days of appointments due to a health issue.  This was a bit frightening to many of us, especially given the traditional protocol where the Pope is never sick until he’s dead.  (Up through the pontificate of John Paul II the Pope was always reported to be in “good health,” regardless of the actual situation) until he was in extremiis.   So what does it mean when they tell us that the Holy Father is somewhat under the weather? Has a fever?  Is indisposed?   Or is it something much more serious. 
Actually, it is not a huge surprise that his health is not as ironbound as they have been claiming.  I remember blogging last September after having been at a Wednesday Audience that he grew more and more visibly tired as the ordeal wore on.  (And ordeal it was, an interminable exercise in the summer heat of Rome. Remember too that he has only one lung, having lost one to a childhood disease.) He was so exhausted that he begun slurring his words and was difficult to understand at some points.  Several other people who have been at various papal functions this past year have reported seeing him visibly worn out by the long ceremonies or audiences.  This is, as I wrote last September, a cause for concern.
I don’t want to be a crepe-hanger and I certainly don’t want to begin second-guessing the next man up to sit in Saint Peter’s chair.  But so that we can better appreciate what we have, I do want to consider what will happen when Pope Francis, either by his choice or God’s, no longer occupies the post. 
The first thing people will watch for is to see where he will live.  The next Pope will not be able to move back into the palace without setting off mass disillusionment; yet neither will the cardinal-electors allow him to continue living in a suite of rooms in the hotel.  This hotel stint is annoying prelates from Rome to Newark to Limburg.  Should Benedict pre-decease Francis or at least his retirement, I surmise the next pope will move into Benedict’s digs in the former convent.   This will give him privacy (and discreet comfort should he choose) without making him look like a vagabond.  There is nothing wrong with the palace, of course, but the symbolism of moving in after the symbolism of Francis’ moving out (or actually refusing to move in) would not be lost on us Francis fans—which is about 99% of the world.  There is a practical matter as well.  The Papal Bedroom, located above Saint Peter’s Square, and visible from numerous sites on the Janiculum as well as the Square and its environs, is probably a security hazard in this day and age.  We all know President Obama lives in the White House and Queen Elizabeth lives in Buckingham Palace, but we don’t know precisely where, and each of those buildings is far more securable than the Vatican Palace.  But that is not the primary point; the primary point is the symbolism of living in a 1400 room palace when there is a significant homeless problem in Rome itself, not to mention that homelessness is known to most world cities. 
Secondly I think we will see the next pope dress a bit snappier.  We won’t go back to the red Prada shoes (that weren’t Prada after all, but handcrafted for Benedict by his shoemaker up near Milan) but neither will see black shoes with a white cassock.  It is like wearing brown shoes with a black suit.  It works for Francis as part of the mystique is to be somewhat shabby, but only a Jesuit would be so sloppy.  (And, to be fair, if he were a fashion plate in five thousand dollar suits and seven hundred dollar ties, one could say that only a Jesuit would know how to dress.  Those boys love extremes which is why I love them.)   The days of seeing a Pope dress in a business suit, even with a clerical collar, is not going to happen—at least in our lifetime or the next thirty-two.  No, when people get their pictures taken with the Pope, they want him to look like a Pope, consequently the white dress.  Nor will we see the stunning liturgical vesture favored by both Benedict and JPII in his final decade or so as Pope.  I doubt the fur trimmed little cap or cape will reappear.  But I think the liturgical vesture will be of simple design as Francis prefers but higher quality material and workmanship.  I think too we will see the rochet and mozetta come back, though probably not the red satin mozetta but a plain white one so that for formal occasions he looks like any other bishop but in white.   And I think the black slacks that show through a white cassock will go the way of the black shoes.  These are not crucial matters, but even a liberal pope should look like somebody, if not himself, pays attention to his wardrobe. 
All this is, of course, just the fluff.   Though fluff it may be, his somewhat down-at-the-heels look has reinforced Francis’ mystique as a man-in-the-streets Pope. Many bishops don’t like that, but they also have bigger fish to fry than the papal couture.  What the Cardinals are really going to go for is a man who stays on script and doesn’t shoot from the hip.  For those of us who have just delighted in the breath of fresh air that Francis has brought into what was becoming a very stodgy old religion, his candid unrehearsed off-the-cuff talk has been exactly what we have needed, but trust me, the bishops aren’t happy.  And when the bishops aren’t happy, you can bet that the Cardinals are really annoyed.  Many of them keep trying to do damage control, saying “What the Holy Father actually means…” when in fact their comments do only more damage.  We all know what Francis means and we all like what he says, but it has the effect of bypassing all the middle managers and speaking directly to us.  The middle managers feel cut out when the number-one guy seems to tell us that we can think for ourselves and are big enough to make our own decisions, and they want to put a stop to that. 
The next guy can’t change the basic drift of Francis’ message, at least right off the bat.   He will have to tell us how great Francis is (was) and how his concern for the poor will shape the new papacy as well.  But I think it will be more rhetoric than practice, probably a great encyclical Deus Pauperes Amat or something like that, but in the Church’s operational scheme it will be back to the day-by-day business as usual. (Though the Vatican Bank will have to be as clean as a whistle.  Those good old days of fiscal corruption at the bank are over, but not thanks to the Church.)  And little by little we will hear the judgmental tone regarding those who don’t conform to our ideas of human sexuality growing just a little bit louder and louder to where we when we talk about “sin” we will be talking about “sex” and not about systemic injustice.  In fact, while our bishops shake their heads at systemic injustice and its consequent human suffering, they will reinforce it by their various political alliances just as they did from the days of Ronald Reagan to the Fortnight for Freedom.   By year five or six of the new pontificate, it will be time a for a new “lay-down-the-law” encyclical condemning the modern world and all its “disordered affections” from contraception to homosexuality.  But by that time we will have lost another sixty or seventy million who have just shaken their heads as they walked away puzzled at the gulf between the gospel and the magisterium.   
I think Francis wants to make sure that his reforms take hold in the Church.  To that end he needs to get to appoint a sufficient number of bishops (and even more important, Cardinals) who are on board his train.  He is fighting a hierarchy, at least in this country, whose social-political-economic philosophy is at odds with his vision.  Even more tricky is that a considerable number (and I am afraid even a majority) of the younger (50 and under) clergy are just on a totally different page, interested in different questions and operating out of a very different ecclesiology than the Holy Father.  Even if he can avoid making these men bishops, they will be the pastors whose job it is to make sure that papal teaching reaches down to the person in the pews.  These guys wont’ do it; they aren’t doing it now.  They don’t agree with Francis and they are waiting this Pope out.  While with Francis’ leaving the chair of Peter, they won’t get the sort of Pope they want who says the TLM and reinforces the exclusivity of clerical power in the Church; neither will we see another Francis.  So enjoy it while we’ve got him, pray for his health, and push the agenda as much as you can.  Francis may be the Church’s Indian Summer before the winter of our discontent.      

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