Papal Poverty and Divine Irony

The dictionary defines irony as “a technique of indicating, as through character or plot development, an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually or ostensibly stated.” Well, the election of Pope Francis, first of that name, was certainly that.

The cardinal electors, most of whom rarely if ever see poor people, chose to be pope someone who has, day after day over many years. The cardinal electors, most of whom live very well indeed, chose someone who lives extremely simply, even cooking his own meals. The cardinals, most of whom do not even do very much to make sure that Church teaching is followed in their own dioceses, even by their own clergy, chose someone who does.

There are all kinds of religious in the United States, for example, who will now have to face a man who can vigorously follow the option for the poor while, at the same time, being entirely faithful to Church teaching. This will upset the old, dissenting applecart.

It will put the criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religion (LCWR) in context. (Of course, one wonders why only the LCWR was singled-out, since plenty of other groups need to be brought into line as well.). The critique of the LCWR members was for not maintaining a solid religious life while “serving the poor.”

There are male groups who are doing similar things, but they have considerably more leverage within the Church because many of them are clergy – and dioceses are strapped for clergy. Now, if Francis’ more faithful option for the poor becomes the new norm, then the clericalist emphasis will lose some of its strength and influence in diocesan decision-making.

And if there will be a new emphasis on the vow of poverty, there are also going to be many religious who will have to face up to a religious who can live extremely simply instead of spending all kinds of cash to surround himself with the trappings of the upper-middle class. Religious poverty is primarily obedience to live a life of poverty, both in order to follow Christ and also to identify with the poor around us. But as we know only too well, that kind of obedience has evaporated in many religious houses.

     Pope Francis attends a Vatican staff Mass

A big question Francis has raised is whether the ecclesiastical inertia that we have had to pay for and watch from the sidelines for so long is going to finally change. Roman complacency has come from the fact that the United States provides most of the Vatican’s funding. Let’s hope that changes under Francis.

The possibilities are wonderful. Catholic clergy might actually consider letting go of a validating lifestyle that seems to have been inherited from the landed British Anglican clergy of the nineteenth century. The passion for furniture and the good life might finally be separated from the vocation of being a Catholic clergyman. This is a change that has been overlong in coming. If it ever happens, will the seminaries get on board so that they do not pass on anachronistic expectations and external indications of having arrived as a clergyman?

The greatest possibilities following from the election of Francis seem to be in the direction of filling out the mission of the Church to the poor, all of the time. Saint Lawrence’s conception of the poor as the “treasure of the Church” has a real possibility of coming true. This is not to gainsay the excellent work that the Church does already. But now perhaps laity will be able to see that they are an integral part of the Church and not an add-on to the clerical church.

Of course, more laity are going to have to get involved – and be more deeply formed in the faith: maybe with some out-front leadership from the clergy this can actually happen. I have a figure in my head that roughly 15 percent of parishioners are currently doing all the outreach in their parishes. Imagine if that figure were to grow to 60 or 70 per cent!

This country would have a whole different outlook on things like abortion. Instead of abortion being an answer to a social problem, preventing the destruction of these “unwanted” souls could be the possibility for a whole new arm of charitable work through giving them homes and educations. People as such might be seen as valuable again – and not just when they reach voting age.

If the Church got itself re-organized around the Vatican II Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, there are some real possibilities for following this pope and the many initiatives that he will undoubtedly start. In short, Pope Francis opens up possibilities not even imagined by the men who elected him. The Church can become much more authentically the Church and show the face of Jesus Christ to the world and especially these United States, a land that surely needs to see Him more clearly again.