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A Franciscan Legacy?

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 14, 2013

In the seemingly endless list of Catholic saints and holy people, there is one who has always stood out to me– St. Francis of Assisi, friend of animals, lover of nature, a wealthy man who gave it all up to live a simple life of poverty and service. He irked the Vatican by rejecting the wealth and worldly power of that day’s Church while he aspired and prayed for the ability to spread the peace that is embodied in God and the life of Jesus. Francis railed against the mystification of our personal relationships with God and wanted the people to know God in their own languages rather than in the closed world of the Latin liturgy, an idea that took nearly seven hundred years to come to fruition. He was, to my jaded and strayed Catholic eyes, one of the very few heroes of the Church that got it. St. Francis was a guy who lived a Christ-like life for the simple fact that he saw in simplicity and service the embodiment of Christ’s message and rejected the complexity and wealth that his message had been twisted to justify by the Church and its clergy.

Today the Church met its new leader, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, the first Pontiff to take the name. Over the years I’ve grown skeptical about

Trying on some mighty fancy duds for a disciple of St. Francis...

Trying on some mighty fancy duds for a disciple of St. Francis…

the Church as I’ve applied the lessons of Jesus taught to me as a boy– love, acceptance, peace, respect– and seen the Church and the other Christian sects abandon them in favor of bigotry and stodgy dogmatism. The fact that finally a man has come along bold enough to take the name of Francis and wear it into the very palaces and gilded halls that represent everything that Francis rejected– well, I’m just not sure how to process that. Hypocrisy? Reform? Megalomania? Courage?

I can see a case for any of those attributes and a heck of a lot of others. Bergoglio is a member of the Society of Jesus, an order that delights in intellect and notoriously doesn’t give much thought or regard to what the rest of the Church thinks. He’s the first of his order to be elected Pope as the Jesuits in general eschew the high offices of the Church and the Church in turn had been delighted to keep an order that it never seems quite able to trust away from the keys to the Popemobile. Why now, when the Church is in the throes of so many problems and scandals, would the de facto ban on Jesuits be lifted by the Curia?

Seemingly a man of firsts, Francis is also our first Latin American Pope. Famously hailing from Argentina albeit by way of an Italian heritage, Francis is seen as a change agent by the simple virtue of not being European. I question whether or not this is simple a case of geographic diversity (in the words of my friend Brian Fleischer) or if it is something greater; is geography destiny or meaningless happenstance in this instance? Does he represent substantive change or has the Curia simply added another of its standard issue?

The writings and public statements of the former Bergoglio don’t give me much cause for hope. His reputation is that of strict conservatism in terms of the social issues that dog today’s Church; he is fervently anti-gay, has spoken out against the expanded role of women in the Church and opposes the lifting of celibacy as a requirement of the priesthood. The unorthodoxy of the Jesuits seems lost on him; he was an early and vocal opponent of liberation theology and as the Jesuit Provincial of Argentina was known as a “man who never smiled”. It is said that he alienated many of his fellow SJs by allegedly collaborating with the military junta during the Dirty War, a claim he denies and which I don’t see sufficient evidence to believe or disbelieve at this point. What I do believe is that a man who can state that allowing loving gay parents to adopt and provide a home to orphans is “a form of discrimination against the child” is a man who has been blinded by his dogma.

His record and people’s opinions of him lead to contradictions. The “man who never smiled” is also known as a warm and humorous man. He supposedly sided with an authoritarian regime that robbed Argentina and its people blind but he is revered as a fervent defender of the poor; from what I have read he most assuredly seems to deserve that reverence. He had a palace and chauffeured limousine in Buenos Aires at his disposal by virtue of being the Archbishop, yet he lived in a small apartment, cooked his own meals and used public transportation– unquestionably displaying Franciscan values. He has managed to ascend to the heights of power in Rome while being renowned for being a guy who stayed at home in Buenos Aires, focusing on his pastoral duties and keeping Argentina’s parishes running, its priests ministering to the people.

It is that last idea, that somehow he has become the chosen of the Curia despite his lack of Roman bona fides at a time when there appear to be deep divisions in the body borne of very secular issues– banking, money laundering and plays for power– that worries me. According to some of my readings today, Francis is not known as a guy to rock the boat in the organizations he’s a part of; match that with the allegations that he might have been too accommodating to the brutal Argentine regime during the Dirty War, his advanced age (76) and that his Papacy will therefore be relatively short and I have to wonder if the Curia didn’t select a man they thought they could control or simply ignore. That’s a tricky calculus, creating a man of power and then thinking that he can be broken to the will of his electors. As Pontiff he would seemingly be a man beyond control, although that appearance has in the past been false. Whether Francis has the strength to effectively defy the Curia may actually be the central question of this Papacy.

All Papacies start with more questions than answers, but I think that the Papacy of Francis is uncommon  in the sheer volume and import of the questions presented at the beginning of this road. The Church itself seems primed for change out of necessity. Is Francis doctrinally suited to changing it? Does he even want to? Is he strong enough to effect any change at all, or can he be controlled by the Curia? Is he a cold technocrat or a warm man of the people? Is he a true disciple of Francis of Assisi? Can he maintain that amidst the silks, gold and artworks of the Vatican?

The empirical evidence– the writings and statements Francis– say that he will be another Pope in the Benedict mode, a stodgy conservative who will continue to press for the doctrinal purity of the religion despite the will of the Catholic people for a more relatable and modern faith. On paper he’s a Pope who represents the false diversity of geography, an orthodox prelate who is simply interested in maintaining the status quo.

There’s something there, though; something that as I think more about who he is makes me wonder if the paper Pope might be something more. The man chose to become the first Pope to ever take the name Francis and he has lived a life that at least in some ways echoes that of Francis. There’s cause for hope there; no, not hope that he’ll end the official bigotry against gays, not too much hope that he’ll reverse the Church’s teachings on contraception that have killed so many in Africa. There is hope, though, that he might be the Pope who starts the ball rolling towards “reform” no longer being something that the Vatican is terrified of.  I wonder if he doesn’t represent the tentative progressivism of the early 1960s in America, a time in which desegregation was germinating as policy even as those who backed it still wouldn’t want to sell their home to “those” people.

Does this Francis echo the Prayer of St. Francis as a channel of peace borne of justice and growth? Is he merely a channel of peace in the style of simply getting along with power? Worse, will he be a cause of strife as the Church continues its rudderless flight into scandal and contradiction? I wish I knew; heck, I wish I knew whether to even hope for something good or to accept that we’re going to have more of the same.

Clarity has never been a tangible benefit of Christianity.

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