Posted by: cctracker | March 14, 2013

Pope Francis: Questions on Day Two


Today, next to the extraordinary story of a humble Jesuit from Argentina, a friend of the poor,  becoming one of the most powerful human beings and well-known faces on the planet, the skeptical questions are already piling up:

Does a 76 year-old really have the energy for this job?

As a Vatican outsider can he really clean house in the Curia and get on top of the sex abuse scandal?

Don’t his conservative views on women and homosexuals mean the Church will remain stuck in the past, offensive to modern sensibilities and irrelevant to the young?

His simplicity and love for the poor notwithstanding, doesn’t his record in Argentina show that he is unwilling to stand outside an established culture in the name of justice and human rights?

How should a reflective Catholic or an intellectually engaged observer of the Church approach questions like these?

A bright, young 20-something asked me another question about the Papacy  yesterday.

“How long has this ‘political’ kind of speculation about the views and agenda of a new pope been going on? Was it always this way?”

My immediate answer was to say that I thought it was relatively new. Certainly the journalistic approach to the Pope as “Ultimate Celebrity” would have been incomprehensible to former generations. Before John XXIII, I speculated, this kind of intense, public conversation through modern media outlets would have been muffled, covered over by an aura of reverence, respect or simple lack of knowledge about the inner workings of a 2,000 year-old institution which claimed that ultimately the Holy Spirit was guiding the Church.

Today’s newspaper ran a chronological list of every Pope from St. Peter to Francis. I’m not much of a historian, so I couldn’t call many rich particulars to mind, but as I read through every name I tried to remember or imagine the context for each era:

Early years of living within, and then beyond,  Jewish law.

Years of Roman persecution in which every Pope was named a Saint.

The first years of Roman Catholicism when the message and example of Jesus of Nazareth was digested and transformed by Roman law and culture.

The obscure early Medieval period during which the Church served as a flawed, fragile and primitive vessel to carry, not only the Gospels, but much of Western Culture, through the darkness.

The unimaginably complex drama of power, piety, political intrigue, sex, heroic virtue and horrific abuse that characterized the Middle Ages and Reformation.

The gradual emergence of a Church and Papacy coerced by circumstance and duty into conversation with the irresistible forces of modernity in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

And then the mind-bending contradictions of the present “post-modern” context:  an era of instantaneous communication in which the world nevertheless watches for smoke to tell the tale, rejoices in the sound of pealing bells, waits over an hour to hear the name of a Pope proclaimed aloud from a balcony and only then is allowed to glimpse the man himself as he steps out from an inner sanctum into the all-seeing eye of video camera and internet.


He stood there before us as a simple man, arms mostly at his side rather than in the Roman gesture of welcome, looking somewhat dazed, perhaps as uncomfortable with the ecclesial formality from which he’d emerged as with the adoring, or curious, paparazzi assembled before him.

It was the humble reality of his physical body that stuck me at that moment.

He came from working class, immigrant parents. He studied chemistry before theology. He chose the worldly but devotional Jesuits and intentionally rejected the trappings of clerical office in favor of hard work, fidelity to Church teaching and service to the poor. In broad contours, this is his story, the “body” he lives in. What else should we expect but that he will continue to live and act according to its dictates?

Biologists tell us that while the eye is miraculous for what it does, it bears the unmistakable marks of an improvised history, designs no engineer would submit for approval. Neural chords take meandering paths through awkward, vulnerable vessels. At times, these structures even get in the way of the project at hand.

Fortunately, the body’s mechanism of sight has evolved in dialogue with the irresistible attraction of what lies beyond itself: the goal of an encounter with the truth of the world as it is.

And so it is with the Church, the “Body of Christ.” It, too, is an organism molded and shaped by the centuries through which it has come. Like our own bodies, the evolution of the Church through the ages has produced awkward, imperfect organs and organ systems. There is no other way forward in flesh. Every shred of ceremonial dress, every word of  scripture or high theology, every ritual gesture bears the mark of its progress through time in dialogue with its goal, its mission, the work at hand.

ursuline nuns copy

And what is that work?  To lead humanity toward conformity to “Christ:” the embodiment of a creative, free, loving and totally human response to the mystery of God’s love.

Some will say that our rapidly changing times demand immediate and dramatic changes to the body . If necessary, surgery.

Others will point with reverence to the miracle of what this Body has done and is doing for the human family. They warn that the world in its selfishness and impatience fails to see and understand that this work is being done by the Body of Christ at the direction of  God at a time when the miracle of life itself is being commodified and must be ever more vigilantly protected.

Some will say that while certain changes may be needed, others must clearly be resisted. And there may be key questions that deserve honest, ongoing exploration and study. But which is which? And how will change in one part of the Body affect its overall health? They claim that the only responsible path is a cautious, conservative approach to change–an approach that attempts to respond to the demands and questions of modernity while protecting the integrity of the Body so that it can continue to love, serve and guide a wounded world.

Child center connected to El Norte De La Salud health clinic.

Image of Catholic Relief Services Worker at

Day two in the reign of a new Pope, particularly one as unexpected as Francis, is an appropriate day for asking some of the urgent questions of our times. But we must remember that for Francis, as it was for Jesus of Nazareth and as it has been and will always be for his Body, the Church, the answers to these questions must be lived out in humble openness to God’s will, according to the flesh.


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