After a month spent surprising and charming most of the Church and the world with his unconventional approach to the office to which he was elected, Pope Francis has made the first major move of his papacy, appointing an advisory group of cardinals from around the world, heralded by many as an affirmation of collegiality, ie, ecclesial decentralization.
The purpose of the group appears to be internal reform of the structures of corrupt clerical bureaucracy that have long been a feature of Vatican life.
Francis’ predecessors, both intellectual giants, did not appear to give much thought to the curia. Blessed John Paul had a greater mission; the details could be worked out later. He seemed, from the beginning of his papacy, intent on embarking on a great work of rousing the Church from the doldrums into which it had fallen, solely by force of will and the great attractiveness of his personality and his many gifts.
And for the most part he pulled it off.
There is a photo of John Paul, taken shortly after his election; my copy still hangs on my living room wall. It was very popular at the time, but I haven’t been able to find it online. In it the pope is seen at a three quarters’ angle. He is wearing a white chasuble and skullcap, and his hands are folded in the traditional western pointed “praying hands”position, which has always looked overly formal to me. He has a grim and determined look in his eye, like a man who has just been given a very dangerous and essential mission.
That photo has always embodied the essence of John Paul II’s papacy to me.
He was holy and he was good and he was immensely likable. But for all his inspiration and his many accomplishments ( if John Paul had only given us the Catechism he would be honored for that gift alone) it is also true that he was not much of an administrator, and time has shown that he sometimes did not possess discernment either (Fr Maciel, anyone?) And while his first two social encyclicals were solidly in line with the radicalism inherent in Catholic social doctrine, the third, Centesimus Annus, was ambivalent enough to cause much confusion (the Italian neocon ,Rocco Buttiglione, was rumored to have a hand drafting the thing). Not that it did not have many passages that reflected the pope’s basic radicalism, but the neocons had a solution to that problem; they simply edited their own version of the encyclical and omitted the offending passages.. They took it and ran.
And neocons began to infiltrate the official life of the Church, most notably -and scandalously- when Fr Robert Sirico, who has spent his unlikely clerical life attempting to reconcile Catholic teaching with the libertarian economics it has always condemned, was named to edit a summary of social doctrine for the Pontifical Council on Peace and Justice.
So Benedict inherited the mess.
Benedict, of course, possessed far different gifts than John Paul. Shy and retiring, a scholar,he had neither John Paul’s charisma nor his photogenic good looks. In many ways it seemed that he did not know “how to pope”. His missteps were many, and I have not been uncritical. But he did several things that were much needed:. he offered greater accessibility to the Latin Mass, he oversaw the retranslation of the vernacular liturgy, and not least, his encyclical Caritas in Veritate clarified much that John Paul had left confused, making plain once and for all the abyss separating Church teaching and free market fundamentalism.
Benedict no doubt saw that the task of reforming the curia would be daunting. I think he knew he was not up to it, temperamentally or physically. So he bowed out.
Much has been made of the differences between Francis’ simple tastes and Benedict’s propensity for the sartorial trappings of the renaissance papacy; odd, given the fact that as a young theologian he eschewed clerical dress, wearing a simple suit and tie. While some may think this criticism superficial, a sacramental Church, of all entities, ought to understand the power of the visible sign. The world today quite simply finds the remnants of the imperial papacy repugnant.
That said, one should not think of Francis’ papacy as a break with his immediate predecessors but as a fulfillment; it has been suggested that Benedict in fact made known his preference that the cardinal from Argentina be his successor, which would explain the speed of his election. And he left the new pope a 100 page dossier.
When Francis was first elected and it was immediately made clear that it was not going to be business as usual my initial reaction was wonder. If you had asked me to describe my ideal new pope I don’t think I could have done better, from his history of voluntary poverty to his choice of a name to his explanation of that name, citing the poor man of Assisi as a man of peace, a man of the poor, and a friend of creation.
The second thought was fear for him. He seemed a sheep among wolves; recent events have revealed that there is intrigue galore in the Vatican. I worried that he was in over his head, that like his namesake he would end up heartbroken, persecuted by his brethren.
But I have rethought this, in light of my extensive reading about his life.
He may be Franciscan in temperament and spirituality, but Francis is a Jesuit. He is smart and tough. His Ignatian training and his background administering first the Jesuits in Argentina and then a large archdiocese will serve him well. By all accounts he is firm and decisive. He apparently is not a man to be trifled with; while fair he is unstoppable when his mind is made up.
The “sheep among wolves” may be the wrong image.
I am thinking he is more the embodiment of Christ’s instruction that his disciples be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
He may be that rare thing, an able administrator who is also an inspiration.