I spent the whole of the recent papal conclave, as well as several days before and after, in Rome, trying to sift through the meaning of events, reports – and rumors. In my experience, we shouldn’t take too seriously most efforts to parse out the pope’s early gestures or words. There’s some lack of faith or paranoia in the nervous need to see the future. We’ll know soon enough which directions he will take. He’s clearly a man of well-considered views, and effective action.
Besides, most of what we know about Francis for certain is this: a holy and intelligent man is leading the Church, who fully supports Catholic teaching – even on neuralgic points like contraception, abortion, and gay marriage. At the same time, he has been close to the poor and supports efforts to help them – but decidedly not every half-baked social “program,” let alone the wilder reaches of Marxist liberation theologies.
In short, we have a pope who doesn’t fit partisan categories, but has found a way to think and act in full harmony with the Church in his Argentinean circumstances.
It’s easy to read a lot into a little at this early moment. For instance, much has been made of his brief words as he first steeped out on the balcony of St. Peter’s: “You all know that the duty of the conclave was to give a bishop to Rome. [Emphasis added.] It seems that my brother cardinals have come almost to the ends of the earth to get him.”
The Romans and the Italians more generally took that as a sign of his wish to be closer to the people in his new diocese – and they have a point. He stepped into the streets of Rome after Mass on Sunday, only a few steps, but without warning his security detail. We know that’s how Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio conducted himself in Buenos Aires, and past practice is usually a better guide to the future than sheer speculation.
The latter is easy, may be intriguing, and sometimes can even be useful. But it can also run ahead of events. There’s been talk, among those who desire it, that Francis has spoken of himself as the bishop of Rome in order to lower the role of the papacy. He spent a long time with the Universal Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I of Istanbul Tuesday. And supposedly that – coupled with the emphasis on being bishop of Rome, not the pope – somehow suggests Francis sees himself as just one among several Christian authorities. Don’t bet the mortgage on that. This pope is Catholic.
By contrast, for me, one of the most significant things to this point is that he’s already mentioned the Devil several times. At his first papal Mass in the Sistine Chapel, during the homily to the cardinal electors, he quoted French writer Léon Bloy: “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” And then continued on his own: “When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.”
A simple man: paying his own bill at the conclave hotel
He spoke two days later to a gathering of the cardinals urging that they “not cede to the bitterness and pessimism that the devil offers us every day.” This is not unusual language for him. When he was trying to stop the Argentine government from legalizing same-sex “marriage,” he put the problem thus:
Let’s not be naive: This is not a simple political fight; it is a destructive proposal to God’s plan. This is not a mere legislative proposal (that’s just it’s form), but a move by the father of lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God. . . . Let’s look to St. Joseph, Mary, and the Child to ask fervently that they defend the Argentine family in this moment. . . .May they support, defend, and accompany us in this war of God.
A pope who openly and repeatedly speaks about the language of the devil, the father of lies, the war against God, and prayer to the Holy Family as a way to combat it clearly isn’t trying to win points with the progressive media. Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner accused him of medievalism for these remarks, but that didn’t intimidate him or others. And she was forced to withdraw the criticism.
It may only be a personal reaction after hearing so many different political, liturgical, and theological views about Pope Francis, but any pope who can seriously assert again that sin exists, that it’s more than a matter of mere human weaknesses and errors, that the whole of the old Christian drama as a contest between God and Satan is still the center of the Faith – and the reason that the Church exists – just may have something fresh to say to the world.
I admire his simple life, humility, advocacy for all the poor and marginalized, cautious handling of the “dirty war” in Argentina. He’s walked the walk. But these things are easily turned into “issues” and a kind of political platform inside and outside the Church. And others are already engaged in many such humanitarian efforts anyway.
Everyone sees the need to reform the curia or the Vatican Bank or other Roman mechanisms. But for a Church that confronts the superficiality and blindness of the modern world, those reforms, too, are not and cannot be the main thing.
Pope Francis gives every indication of believing that all these things and many others need doing because the larger spiritual drama that Christianity once brought to the attention of the world is still a true picture of us and our troubled lives, individually and socially.
If he can make visible the reality of that drama once again, it may prove to be his most surprising and revolutionary contribution to a world that thinks it long ago left behind all such cosmic struggles – and suffers for it.