Not long ago, the syndicated editorial cartoonist, Jeff Danziger, drew a scene in which a group of cardinals go and see God, and their leader asks him: “Your Brilliance, just how seriously do we cardinals have to take Pope Francis and his give-up-all-the-perks-and-behave-like-humble-parish-priests crap?” Sometimes even the anti-Catholics see the Catholic thing better than we do.
With Pope Francis we are at an epochal point in the history of the Church. Historically, his actions are comparable with the Second Vatican Council and with the scandals. He stands out so much because rather than follow the prevailing culture, he consistently follows Christ’s injunctions to the apostles, particularly at the washing of the feet.
When the history is written, Francis will be seen as a turning point in the life of the Church and its service. Not since the Edict of Milan (313), when Catholicism first became legal in the Roman Empire, has the strange mixture of wealth, power, and apostleship concocted by sinful men been so massively challenged. Imagine how different the world would be if, for 1600 years, clergy had chosen to follow the apostolic instead of the aristocratic style.
Some U.S. bishops are following Francis’ example in choice of living quarters. He chose not to live in the Apostolic Palace, but that is only the beginning of where Francis is going. It gets more personal.
Francis is returning the apostolic ministry to its fundamentals, all the better for the Church, of course, but the whole industry of ecclesiastical careerism has been thrown on its ear. Jesus said to the twelve:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.(Matthew 20:25-28)
Humanly speaking this is not surprising. For example, historically, as the officer corps developed in the military, they appropriated more and more perks, distracting themselves from the business of leading their men, which was their sole reason for being there. Senior personnel in large organizations frequently slip into appropriating resources and forming stylized ways of avoiding respectful communing with those “beneath” them.
In Francis’ case, however, he walked in the barrios in Buenos Aires and spoke to actual people. He could take a bus or subway, too. That attitude is one with others he has manifested: “The Holy Father spoke to the [clergy] of his sadness at hearing of people who had the experience of being ‘thrashed’ or ‘yelled at’ in the confessional and never returned because they felt that ‘the doors of the Church were closed in their face’.”(NCR May 11) He is very aware of the value of real intersubjectivity rather than asymmetric “communication.”
Authentic interpersonal communication – at which Jesus was the expert – shows the other person as together there in the love of God. There is no place for social ritual or for class-consciousness. They get in the way of authentic communication. Unfortunately, many prefer that kind of social structure and the walls – and safety – it provides.
Of course, Francis’ comments often cause panic because some are compelled to see something wrong in everything. In saying that the Catholic Church is not rigid, he does not plan to change the number of persons in the Trinity or the seriousness of intrinsically evil acts. He is merely addressing the personal rigidity of some clergy towards their people. He proposes instead that a loving heart:
a missionary heart is aware of these limits and makes itself “weak with the weak. . .everything for everyone” (1 Corinthians 9:22). It never closes itself off, never retreats into its own security, never opts for rigidity and defensiveness. It realizes that it has to grow in its own understanding of the Gospel and in discerning the paths of the Spirit, and so it always does what good it can, even if in the process, its shoes get soiled by the mud of the street. (Evangelii Gaudium)
The chief challenge of Francis’ pontificate will be finding clerical candidates mature enough and prayerful enough to serve the people in the way that he does. Then Saint John Vianney – the parish priest – can take his rightful place as model for interpersonal relationships between clergy and people for holiness’ sake.
What has not been said nearly enough is that the timing of Pope Francis’s arrival on the scene is providential. Returning to the apostolic style is the only effective way to face modernity with all of its stifling – dare I say rigid – worldliness.
When clergy are worldly then the institution becomes largely superfluous. Why have yet another worldly institution in the world? Living lives of transcendence means transcending property and the “good” life. It means going beyond interpersonal barriers for the sake of the Gospel. This is the “behave-like-humble-parish-priests” style that Francis exemplifies. Big things are happening and we are part of it.