I have noticed that whenever I dip into the past, readership goes down and when I deal with current issues, it springs back up. So, while I am really enthused about this Church of England thing, I need to swing to the bleachers; consequently back to Pope Francis and his message to the Roma Curia. But remember this is not just for us to gloat over the sins of the boys in purple (a sin itself under the wonderfully named category of morose delectation—the savoring of another’s faults or misfortunes), it should serve each of us as well as a measure for our own conscience. You don’t need have a miter to chip away at the credibility of our Catholic faith. So Pope Francis went after the boys for:
The disease of rivalry and vainglory. When appearances, the colour of our clothes and our titles of honour become the primary object in life, we forget the words of Saint Paul: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4). This is a disease which leads us to be men and woman of deceit, and to live a false “mysticism” and a false “quietism”. Saint Paul himself defines such persons as “enemies of the cross of Christ” because “they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil 3:19).
The “Holy” See has long worked on the principle of rivalry and vainglory and now the Pope decides this is a “disease?” I guess it is somewhat like smoking—for the longest time it was fashionable, a necessary social activity and all of a sudden someone decided that it wasn’t good for you—or for anyone within 100 feet of you. Just as our eyes were opened to the dangers of tobacco, we should be grateful that this poison of pomposity and a zeal for its trappings has finally been called out. Of course there are some—and we all know who don’t we—for whom it is still all about dressing up in more yards of silk than a Chinese empress ever dreamed of and parading around for people to kiss your ring and kneel for your blessing. How much is a blessing from a self-idolater worth anyway? I guess you need to go up to Gricigliano and ask the boys in blue. And this is precisely the problem: how often do we fall for the bait represented by some grandiose prelate. There is a saying that when a man becomes a bishop he has had his last bad meal and he will never hear the truth again. How much to we get carried away in the moment fall all over the bishop or the Cardinal or whoever when they come to visit our parish. We respectfully listen to what they have to say—whether it is worth listening to or not—and we bite our tongues rather than speak up and tell them what we believe. Last November at their meeting in Baltimore, the American bishops showed a lot of hesitancy about the agenda for the family that clearly has the backing of Pope Francis. They are not willing to go out on a limb and explore the possibilities to offer greater support to the non-traditional family structures that are very quickly becoming the norm in our society. Yet the “Catholic in the pews” is supportive of Pope Francis. The “Catholic in the pews” wants to see new pastoral approaches to the remarried, to same-sex households, to single parents, to couples who have opted for in vitro conception, and others who just don’t fit the traditional mold. I am not saying that we want to abandon our traditional values, much less our moral heritage—but we do want to explore new ways to minister to those who feel themselves on the margins of the Church and we want ways to be more inclusive as a faith community. Our bishops hesitate because we hesitate to speak up. We are the fidelium (the faithful) of the consensus fidelium. The deposit of the faith is held in our collective heart—not in some catechism or some tome of moral theology.
I have no problem with bishops wearing red dresses, or even jeweled rings and crosses. Granted some overdo it, but in principle I could care less. I know good bishops who just like to dress up and I know sad examples of bishops who dress down in more functional attire. What we need is to become a community of Truth where all can speak their mind (and their heart) and where we listen to one another and weigh carefully what each other has to say. The real problem isn’t pomp; the problem is a hierarchical mentality. Cure that and the pomposity will fall into line.
The disease of existential schizophrenia. This is the disease of those who live a double life, the fruit of that hypocrisy typical of the mediocre and of a progressive spiritual emptiness which no doctorates or academic titles can fill. It is a disease which often strikes those who abandon pastoral service and restrict themselves to bureaucratic matters, thus losing contact with reality, with concrete people. In this way they create their own parallel world, where they set aside all that they teach with severity to others and begin to live a hidden and often dissolute life. For this most serious disease conversion is most urgent and indeed indispensable.
This is the real bombshell in the Christmas address. I remember when I was living in Rome being invited to a Diplomatic Reception in Lateran Palace. It was one of those scenes like you see in a movie with everyone dressed to the hilt—men in evening dress, women with their jewels, prelates in full peacock glory, waiters with trays of champagne and hors d’oeuvres, tables piled with pastries and all the empty chatter. I was in the company of a priest friend, a chaplain in the Canadian military, and a handsome man. There was a long line of prelates—including two cardinals—waiting to speak with him and invite him to dinner. As he remarked to me afterwards: “the expectation is that I will be the dessert.” The double-life of many in the Curia is a matter of open knowledge and frequent gossip in Rome. And you know, it could to a certain extent be forgiven if it wasn’t so hypocritical with everyone posing as the paragon of moral virtue. Francis’ “Who am I to judge” should be the blazon on every prelate’s coat of arms. We all need to keep in our moral eye our own failures and sins and realize that none of us is in a position to judge—much less to condemn—others. Francis defined this particular fault as a “schizophrenia” and so it is as so often we are able—all of us from the boys in the red dresses down to little old lady from county Monaghan who is daily at the communion rail—we are all able to compartmentalize our lives and put a fire wall between our own sins and our public persona. Psalm 50 is my favorite prayer perhaps simply because it calls me to face my sins honestly and keeps me truthful to myself. At least I hope it does.
The disease of gossiping, grumbling and back-biting. I have already spoken many times about this disease, but never enough. It is a grave illness which begins simply, perhaps even in small talk, and takes over a person, making him become a “sower of weeds” (like Satan) and in many cases, a cold-blooded killer of the good name of our colleagues and confrères. It is the disease of cowardly persons who lack the courage to speak out directly, but instead speak behind other people’s backs. Saint Paul admonishes us to do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent” (Phil 2:14-15). Brothers, let us be on our guard against the terrorism of gossip!
This gossiping, grumbling, and backbiting has long been part of the Vatican culture. You can go back to the very dirty papal elections of the 16th century where cardinals knocked out their rivals—or at least attempted to—by circulating the most scurrilous of rumors. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul in the process? But again, the fight to the top of the caterpillar pillar is so vicious and it brings out the worst. Unfortunately the Vatican runs on gossip: if you could turn it to energy you could light and heat all of Italy. The nasty little comments that are slipped in between the primo piatto and the secundo at Abruzzi on the Piazza SS Apostoli, or La Sagrestia over near the Pantheon are legendary. Just grab a table anywhere in the Borgo during lunch and you will overhear some nasty remark or another from a fellow in a soutane about one of his co-workers.
Francis comes from a very different tradition. I understand that Jesuits take a vow never to speak ill of another Jesuit. Of course, like other vows people take the rate of keeping doesn’t match the rate of taking. Nevertheless, it does create a certain culture in which you learn to be careful of speaking ill—especially when untrue—of others. We could all benefit from that consciousness. People can be just as vicious in staking out their niche in the local parish as some desk-jockey Monsignor in the Vatican in his battle for the purple. Or it may not even be in the Church that we fall into gossip and undermining the reputation of others. It might be in our Knights of Columbus Council or even the local swim club. It might be at our job. In whatever situation we find ourselves sinking to this low, we need to remember that it reflects very poorly on us as Catholics. This is an area where you and I can do as much damage, and maybe even more, to the credibility of our Faith than any Cardinal or bishop ever could.