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.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Perfect!

  • Paul

    A wonderful article, if I may say so.

    I am looking forward to the significant reformation of the Church, which Francis, who already seems a great pope, in his thinking, seems to be contemplating, but my admiration for Benedict is boundless.

    I am amazed at the criticisms of him that have surfaced, notably via the secular media; although I should have realised it was simply a measure of his greatness.

  • Paul

    Welborn and well-raised!

  • Clement_W

    Ms. Welborn, you hit the nail on the head.

    The ‘Professor’ who called Benedict XVI, a ‘clothes-horse’, is nothing more than an alleged ‘professor’ who is a victim of the ‘publish or perish’ intellectual milieu that our ADHD afflicted society is suffering from. Has anyone noticed the number of ‘historians’ who have become ‘experts’ on our recent Presidents’ historical contributions? I am sure there are many who have been writing of the history-making ‘achievements’ of the current President of the U.S. to be first-in-line of the ‘publish or perish’ crowd.

  • JaneInDE

    You articulated my sentiments Amy. I was getting a little tired of all the “to-do” by both the secular and religious media about the humility of Pope Francis and his “simpler” ways. God bless Benedict and Francis – and God have mercy on us all.

  • JMC

    It’s all the old hippies complaining that Benedict put his foot down about the liturgical abuses that had cropped up, due to misapplications of the teachings of Vatican II. We have seen for ourselves the fruit those misapplications have brought forth; there’s a wealth of truth in the old saying “lex orande, lex credende…” Literally, the law of prayer is the law of faith; it boils down to as you pray, so shall you believe. The language of the liturgy had been stripped of words like “holy” and “sacred,” to the point that, once the priest leaves the church at the end of Mass, you’d think you were in a nightclub instead of a church. In some smaller churches, you can’t even get out without pushing your way past the people who are blocking the aisles in their little klatches, chattering away at full volume, completely ignoring the Sacred Presence at the altar. (Yes, it’s still reserved at the altar in our parish, not in a separate room.) There’s a reason faith in the Real Presence is no longer the pillar it once was to most Catholics. Now, many Catholics don’t even really believe in the transubstantiation anymore. The “Amen” to “The Body/Blood of Christ” has become automatic, formulaic; not the affirmation of belief it was intended to be.

    Simplification is good, but so is history. Both have their value. Benedict was about history, Francis is about simplicity and humility. But in the end, neither actually rules the Church. There’s an anecdote Pope John XXIII once told, in which he found himself sleepless with worry about a particular issue. He finally lectured himself by saying, Who is in charge? You or the Holy Ghost? (This was before that terminology was dropped in favor of “Holy Spirit.”) He answered himself, “The Holy Ghost, of course. So go to sleep, Giuseppe!” We need to remember this ourselves. While each Pope brings his own pastoral style to the office, in the end he is only the Vicar, not the King.

  • MT

    Read Papa Benedict’s books–He’s all about Jesus! You will have an incredible understanding of Our Lord — a real in-depth look at the Savior of the World!

  • Sadly, you miss the essence of the comparison. Yes, Benedict spoke for the poor but only with words. Francis speaks for the poor with his life.

  • This display of ‘love’ for Pope Francis is akin to Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the beginning of his presidency. The media (perhaps as a disguise for ther interest groups) is trying to shape his papacy. Then when he sticks by Christian morality they will drop him again. Oh media….you chameleon.

  • Rose

    No, Father Bain, you miss the point. Did you know Benedict went and visited and said Mass in the same place Francis is going on Thursday? Different styles. It seems Pope Francis is about big and large gestures to teach society (nothing wrong with this) and Benedict took the advice of St. John the Baptist, “I must decrease, …” Imagine a priest taking sides of popes, as if they were political opponents. They are brothers from different cultures and different sides of the world and different perspectives, but brothers nonetheless and we will see this tomorrow (3/23) God willing. God the Holy Spirit gave them to us in this order, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Francis, in order to accomplish His plan.

  • Joann

    You should be ashamed of yourself, Father!

  • Philip Clingerman

    Benedict XVI was a holy and gentle pope. He did a lot to ‘clean up Dodge’ and there is much left to do. I met him in 1985; his was the most gentle and royal soul in the room, as far as I could tell.

  • taad

    God bless you!!! I really am getting tired of people acting like Pope Benedict was this vain, rich pope. Humility is not always seen by exterior actions. It is an interior disposition. Pope Benedict is a very humble and simple person. He should not be compared to others. Some cardinals need to shut up, retire from public life, and do GREAT penances for their sins of not protecting our youth from homosexual abusers.

  • Victoria

    Yes, absolutely. They are not opponents, but given their role by God for a purpose.
    Speaking of Benedict’s being a “clotheshorse”, I am reminded of an occasion when my saintly mother in law gave me a pair of ostentatious earrings and necklace, not my style at all, but she wanted me to wear them to church. So I did out of deference to her, and the (protestant) pastor gave a sermon in which he made pointed reference (looking at me, I swear) to those who dress in ostentation and finery when going to church to impress others. Poor Benedict.

  • God gives His gifts to everyone in a different, unique manner. To compare popes’ methods or public actions is unfair and ridiculous. Loving the poor, caring for the less fortunate, takes on a variety of expressions. Pope Benedict is NOT Pope Francis. St. Peter was NOT Pope Pius X. But they are/were holy, humble and love Holy Mother Church and the souls of all mankind.

    So my advice to all those who see the need to make comparisons: SHUT UP!!

    Amy: Great, great article!

  • Macchabee

    Jesus said the poor you will always have with you! Each Holy Father in my lifetime has been a gift of the Holy Spirit-John Paul II to take down Communism-Pope Benedict liturgy, writing, and yes humility in resigning.
    Each spoke to the poor in his own way.
    Pope bashing is an hazardous endeavor.

  • Macchabee

    Each Holy Father in my rather long life has been the special gift of the Holy Spirit.

    Pius XII – take a look at a recent book “The Pope’s Jews.”

    John XXIII Vatican II air for the church

    Paul VI scrupulously truthful about morality.

    John Paul II the phenomenon of the 20 th century-missionary-philosopher, freedom fighter

    Pope Benedict Writer, author, thinker, liturgist, and reformer with humility in accepting the limitation of his aging.

    Papa Francisco- a 21st century pope- integrity in the face of government evil, human enough to recognize the one who delivered his newspaper as a person by personally calling him up in person to cancel his newspaper description.

    Let us thank the Lord for whom He has given the church as the gates of hell assail us the Mystical Body of Christ every day.

    A joyful Passover to our Jewish brothers and sisters.

    Happy Easter – Christ is Risen

  • “Each spoke to the poor in his own way” Benedict with words and Francis with his life. God bless both of them for that.

  • Joe T

    Amen! I have been bothered by many things in this transition. God Bless Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI for the decision the Holy Spirit led him to make. But almost immediately you could sense in the public praise of his “courageous decision” a hint of suggestion that Pope John Paul II should have stepped down. Or, conversely, that based on Pope John Paul II’s example, it was somehow a travesty that Benedict stepped down. Two different men, two different callings, one Holy Spirit. One has little or nothing to do with the other.

    I love Francis! But, to be honest, I can’t imagine that I wouldn’t love whatever Pope had been called to serve. I also loved (and love) Benedict XVI. All the discussions of Francis’ humility have been wonderful and all, but I also have picked up many underlying messages in the reporting of his humility. I could not agree more with the assessment of Benedict. He loved and honored tradition. There are stories and meanings behind all these things. Francis prefers simplicity and is not nearly as concerned with tradition. Two different men, two different times of need in the Church, two different primary purposes, One Holy Spirit.
    Anyone thinking Benedict wore and did what he did out of some sort of vanity or Royal Theatre simply does not understand him.

  • Very good article Amy. I believe the media is being kind to Pope Francis because he has lived among the poor, road the subway, etc. which is all true. I believe they will try and use his words to justify larger and larger government programs which should be run by the Church and lay people. I also believe they will turn on him the moment he articulates the Church position on abortion, gay marriage, divorce and remarriage, articifical contraception and all the other non-negotiables the left hopes will change. If he states that Catholic politicians who support abortion and gay marriage should be denied the Eucharist they will paint him as the anti-Christ.