Much Ado About Popes

pope francis 2Benedict smileI’m going to try to offer a short reflection on the explosion of reactions to Pope Francis.  Perhaps if I put it in list form, that will force me to be more succinct than I otherwise would be.

    1. I believe that this conversation that is happening is being shaped, in a negative way, by the fact that Pope Emeritus Benedict is still alive.  I think that if Pope Francis’ pontificate – what little of it there has been so far – less than a week – had occurred in the wake of Benedict’s death, the general tone would be more subdued, shaded as it would be by a period of grief and mourning and probably sympathy for a dying Pope.  Instead there is what I’m going to come straight out and call a tone of “relief.”  It seems to spill over from the normal level of interest in and hope that any new papacy evokes onto another level.  Half of the Facebook posts on my newsfeed seem to begin with “At last!” or “Finally!”   I don’t think this would be happening if Benedict were dead.  It’s weird.
    2. I’m startled by the number of people who are under the impression that Pope Benedict neglected to mention Jesus Christ, mercy or the poor during his pontificate. Who don’t understand the substantial reforms Pope Benedict undertook over the past few years. So for example:   Pope Francis mentioned the danger of the Church becoming seen as just another NGO, to wide acclaim – from some of the same quarters who have looked askance at Pope Benedict making exactly the same points – and putting them into action (as in his actions, for example, regarding Caritas last year). This post tweaks that reflex –  and it’s a reflex to be aware of.
    3. Liturgical conversations have resurfaced with a vengeance over the past few days.  Just a few points there:  A few days ago, a church historian was quoted as saying, “You have to remember that Benedict was a clotheshorse.” What that expert fails to recognize was that Benedict’s attention to papal garb was not about vanity – I mean – really.  It was about what he was always about: history. And not history as a museum, out of an antiquarian interest, but as a link from the present to the past. The red shoes – so maligned even by Catholics who should know better – are a symbol of blood. Blood , people.  The blood of the martyrs and the blood of Christ on which His vicar stands, and through him, all of us.  Popes – yes, even John XXIII and Paul VI – wore them until John Paul II stopped.  Then Benedict reinstated them. That is, he humbled himself before history and symbol and put the darn things on.
    4. Why did he reinstate them?   Because he was  vain, monarchical and arrogant?  Because he was out of touch with the poor? Because he was, in the terms of the esteemed professor, a “clotheshorse?” Because they look good?  I doubt it, because, you know, they don’t, not really.  Maybe – just maybe – because he believes what they symbolize?  That his office is rooted in the blood of the martyrs, especially Peter?  And that it is good for the Pope in the 21st century to maintain this link to and through other Popes who have done the same thing, to Peter, and then to Christ?
    5. But hardly anyone even bothered to go that far.  Just think if we had.  Just think if more of us had been open to being taught by these gestures and symbols and instead of reflexively looking askance at it because it is culturally distant from us, had asked these questions and let them inform our faith – our own willingness to be martyred, to give our lives and our hearts to Christ and his people.
    6. For me, it comes down to this.  Both of these Popes were and are pastors.  Both have given their lives for us, for Christ.  We can – and should be open to being – taught by both.  All I’m saying is that – as Pope Francis himself has acknowledged in his own words these past few days – Pope Benedict was all about Christ. He spent 8 years as your Pope, “proposing Jesus Christ” through his words and actions – even his red shoes.  If Pope Francis’ actions so far preach Christ more clearly to you then so be it.  Christ is who is important, and we are a Church of great diversity for a reason.  But what has been so bizarre and even saddening over the past few days is a tone and implication that Benedict was somehow about something else besides Jesus Christ.
    7. There is much more to say on liturgy, and plenty of people are saying it, mostly from positions of uncertainty and fear.  I have nothing to say about those specific worries because it’s all a complete unknown at this point.  Who knows what will happen.  My hope is that there are clearly huge problems in the Church that need attention.  The liturgy, as reset by Benedict, is not one of those problems, but that’s just the way it seems to me.
    8. But one more comment on those conversations – the reactions to the reactions to the reactions  – that are flying about.  Here’s what is important to remember.  The “changes” that Benedict made to the liturgical direction of the Church are not expressions of his aesthetic or taste.  What Benedict did was to implement the Church’s liturgy in the Church’s  practice.  There are documents.  Decrees and such.  Books.  Rubrics.    Believe it or not, Benedict’s reset button was really nothing more than pointing us to what we are supposed to be doing anyway.   If you don’t believe me, read them yourself. There is a deeper theological and spiritual reasoning and structure as well, but really, the basic goal was: fidelity to what the Church offers.  If you read Ratzinger on liturgy,  his thinking is quite pastoral.  It basically comes down to: Every Catholic has the right to the  Church’s liturgy. 
    9. I’m not interested in debating the liturgical direction of Pope Francis, because I have no idea what that is, and besides..why?  What I am interested in is that the discussion, which is inevitably coming back around to Pope Benedict’s liturgical work, be grounded in truth about what that was really about.  The great thing about the Roman liturgy is (believe it or not) its flexibility.  It can be celebrated from the back of a pickup truck in a field or in a Gothic Cathedral.  It can be celebrated with no music or a polyphonic choir and everything in between.  But – the Roman liturgy is also not formless.  Benedict’s liturgical work was oriented towards reacquainting us with that form and deep spiritual substructure, not for its own sake but for the sake of the seeker encountering Christ there.  
    10. And I hope that’s it for me on that score.  I vow not to be one of those people.   That is, like folks who never could quite get it through their heads, even by 2012,  that John Paul II wasn’t pope anymore. Promise you, and I promise myself.

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