Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Complicated Knot: Can Fr Francis Stay True To Himself When Acting As Pope Francis?

Mary the Undoer of Knots.  Notice how she is not using scissors or swords to untie these particular knots.  There are no shortcuts to those pesky spiritual knots.

One of the things I have to keep in mind about Pope Francis is that he seems to have two different modes of being Francis.  First there is Fr Francis the elder pastoral traveler on an open ended spiritual pilgrimage along with all the rest of us, and secondly there is Pope Francis the titular monarch with a very different path he walks with the triumphant Magisterial Church and with his fellow global power brokers.  

I always have to keep in mind which Francis is speaking and how far the speech will effect the interactions of the other Francis.  The following article is by Vatican Insider's Andrea Tornielli.  It covers the homily Francis gave this morning at Saint Martha's House.  It's a great representation of the thinking of Fr Francis the fellow pilgrim---until one gets to the second to last paragraph and then there's a bit of the other Francis.

Francis: “Even today there’s a dictatorship of narrow-mindedness”

Andrea Tornielli - Vatican Insider -4/10/2014
Today there is a dictatorship of narrow-mindedness that kills people’s freedom. This was the Pope’s message at his morning mass celebration in St. Martha’s House. 

In his homily Francis reflected on the attitude of the Pharisees and how closed they were to Jesus’ message. Their mistake, the Pope pointed out, was "detaching the commandments from the heart of God.”  They thought everything could be resolved by respecting the commandments. But these commandments "are not just a cold law,” because they are born from a relationship of love and are "indications" that help us avoid mistakes in our journey to meet Jesus, Vatican Radio says, quoting the Pope’s words.(Exactly, commandments, laws, and rules should be directional signs on the pilgrim's road, not final destinations.)

By doing so, the Pharisees close their hearts and minds to “all things new.” "This is the drama of the closed heart, the drama of the closed mind - the Pope said - and when the heart is closed, this heart closes the mind, and when the heart and mind are closed there is no place for God,” only for what we believe should be done.  (And closed hearts and minds are concerned mostly with what they believe should be done by others.)

It is a closed way of thinking that is not open to dialogue, to the possibility that there is something else, the possibility that God speaks to us, tells us about His journey, as he did to the prophets. These people did not listen to the prophets and did not listen to Jesus. It is something greater than a mere stubbornness. No, it is more: it is the idolatry of their own way of thinking. 'I think this, it has to be this way, and nothing more'. These people had a narrow line of thought and wanted to impose this way of thinking on the people of God, Jesus rebukes them for this: ' You burden the people with many commandments and you do not touch them with your finger'.” (For Fr Francis, the last sentence here is the heart of the matter.  We must chance touching others.)

Francis noted that Jesus “rebukes their incoherence.” "The theology of these people becomes a slave to this pattern, this pattern of thought: a narrow line of thought". "There is no possibility of dialogue; there is no possibility to open up to new things which God brings with the prophets. They killed the prophets, these people; they close the door to the promise of God. When this phenomenon of narrow thinking enters human history, how many misfortunes. We all saw in the last century, the dictatorships of narrow thought , which ended up killing a lot of people, but when they believed they were the overlords, no other form of thought was allowed. This is the way they think.”  (It's the way they act as well.)

"Even today there is the idolatry of a narrow line of thought,” Francis said. "Today we have to think in this way and if you do not think in this way, you are not modern, you're not open or worse. Often rulers say: 'I have asked for aid, financial support for this’, ' But if you want this help, you have to think in this way and you have to pass this law, and this other law and this other law…' Even today, there is a dictatorship of a narrow line of thought and this dictatorship is the same as these people: it takes up stones to stone the freedom of the people, the freedom of the people, their freedom of conscience, the relationship of the people with God. Today Jesus is crucified once again.” (Here's another Fr Francis linguistic tool, depending on  one's world view, this paragraph can be read as an attack on fundamentalist religious thinking or on the narrow agenda driven thinking of left wing progressives.)

“The Lord’s exhortation "faced with this dictatorship is always the same: be vigilant and pray; do not be silly, do not buy" things "you do not need, be humble and pray, that the Lord always gives us the freedom of an open heart, to receive his Word which is joy and promise and covenant! And with this covenant move forward!"” the Pope concluded this morning’s mass by saying.


Pope Francis is attempting to walk a very difficult path.  It's a path that holds contradictory and even conflicting expectations.  He is trying to do that which even did Jesus did not attempt, and in fact rejected. Francis is attempting to be a true follower of Christ while holding a position of unchecked power and huge global prestige.  Francis has accepted the devil's final challenge to Jesus in the desert.  Francis now has the whole world at his beck and call while he simultaneously attempts to call the whole world to become the penniless crucified Jesus.  This is the exact challenge which overcame John Paul II, sent Pope Benedict into retirement, thwarted the papacy of Paul VI, and only served to rally the conservative clerical troops against the People of God vision of John XXIII.  No wonder Pope Francis is enamored with the idea of Mary as the 'untier of knots'.  This contradictory dual role will be a tough knot to untangle.

Francis freely admits he failed at this task when he was the Jesuit provincial in Argentina.  He was overcome by his authoritarian side.  I appreciated his forthrightness in admitting this mistake because learning from mistakes is what we're here to do and why the Mercy of God is such an important a concept.  The question for all of us is usually if the lesson sank in deep enough to protect us from repeating it under different circumstances.  For Francis his current circumstances have vastly different consequences should he repeat his mistake and revert to authoritarianism.  I can remember when John Paul II was actually something of a populist in the early years of his papacy but then the traditional papal environment got to him and he became all about authoritarian papal prerogative and very little about humble priestly service.  From day one Francis created an environment around himself intended to deflect the papal temptations and reinforce the humble priest who needs people.  I certainly have respected him for that because it shows he knows well his own tendencies.  I have never thought all of his 'every man' acts were some sort of show.  I've always thought they were part and parcel of how he understood his humanity....everyone urinates even if they do it in gold urinals.  

Unfortunately, indifference to the perks and trappings of high office do not necessarily protect one from succumbing the other temptations of such high office.  We also saw in the last century a number of very powerful dictators who while eschewing the trappings of their position did not disdain to use and increase their very real authoritarian power over others.....and millions died. 

What I really fear is that although Pope Francis sees his papacy as something of a mandate to bring the Church and it's clergy back into some semblance of compliance with Jesus' notions about service, compassion, mercy, and love, Francis will be thwarted in this mission because he doesn't have a clergy willing to suffer loss of status for this vision.  The Pharisees, both clerical and lay, will not open their hearts or minds to a concept of Church which is open ended, poor, and merciful.  That's just way too dangerous to closed minds secure in their knowledge of how the world should work.  They will fight Francis tooth and nail to keep the world as they think it should be because they know this is exactly the way God wants it to run.  I will continue praying that Francis doesn't succumb to that very temptation, which is of course the core truth of the final temptation in the desert....the single minded idolatry of globalizing one's own thinking.



  1. Wow thanks for articulating so clearly what I've been "feeling" about Francis for a long time, but unable to express in words. This image of the two Francis' really nails it. What a dilemma to be in. I don't envy him.

  2. I think Francis demonstrates daily that he is much more Fr. Francis than monarch Francis. Did you follow the story line today about his attending the Human Trafficking meeting? When he entered the meeting room, he took his place seated among all the other attendees and gave his short speech from there. He demonstrated that he is not above anyone else and I have seen him do this time and time again. I think he does use the fact that he is considered a global power broker when he wants to convey a message which is what he did with the speech itself. Whether over time he becomes monarch more and Fr. Francis less is the question but I think the depth of his spirituality will lead him in the right direction. Read the transcript of his recent interview with the kids from Belgium to get an idea of what I am talking about. It is out in English, but if you cannot find it I have a copy of it. Based on what I have read about him, which has been quite a bit both about his time in the papacy and his time in Argentina, and watching many hours of video, I am betting that Fr. Francis is the more dominant role in his life.

  3. A bit off topic but perhaps not so far is this idea from a Harvard theologian.

    What does this do to a celibate priesthood.

  4. Thanks for commenting Reyanna. I haven't seen the story line about Francis and the human trafficking meeting and will look it up. What I do think is that if Francis is thwarted from implementing his understanding of the mission of the Church he will resign before he's overcome. Should that happen it will be one heck of a statement and cause one heck of an earth quake in the Church.

  5. Uhmm, make it a whole lot harder to justify celibacy. However, the fragment doesn't exactly explain what the word 'wife' references which gives the Church a lot of leeway.

  6. I think any time a committed Christian winds up in a leadership position it's a dilemma. For Francis it's the ultimate dilemma.

  7. Also, he can't combat clericalism on his own. We need to take some ownership in this fight. I think we need to, in every way we can, push hard on this from the bottom so to speak. He has and continues to hammer on this any chance he can as he tries to convert hearts in the rank and file clergy. He has begun to fire warning shots across the bow of bishops who are misbehaving. I think he may continue a bit doing this before he ratchets it up a bit. He has to move carefully and it is an exquisite balancing act for him. But if we can keep voicing in many ways that we think priests are not acting as true shepherds it will help. Certainly your activities in this blog are a part of it. It may be a tiresome task we face trying to achieve this but I do take heart in what Francis is showing us in the way he walks his talk. I found, for example, his action of publicly going to confession key. I am not big on confession, haven't been in years, don't plan to any time soon and am a bit bemused by his bringing it up often. I understand his fondness for it as it was within the context of confession that, at 17, he experience what he calls a profound call to become a priest. It is an interesting thought to wonder what the urgency of a 17 year old boy to go to confession was about, but never mind. Given all that though, I had to admire his "putting his money where his mouth was" when he walked over and knelt down to go to confession with the cameras continuing to roll in full view of the world. Of course he and the priest could in reality have been talking soccer scores with him instructing the priest to wave his hands in a reasonable facimile of granting absolution, but his expressions afterward sure looked the real deal. I favor extending positive responses in these current circumstances and try to look at the good in the events unfolding. To be cynical drains energy.....I am too old to be wasting energy in emphasizing the negative.

  8. Oh I definitely agree that he might take into mind to resign if the BS and push back gets to be too much. He strikes me as the type not too brook tto much nonsense. This is not a role he aspired to from all accounts I have read, including statement one of his sisters, now dead, made after the previous conclave. I think that is why he did not his per the fact that he renewed his Argentine passport and citizenship papers. I think he would head back to Buenos Aires. This is a man who booked a round trio ticket to come to the conclave and that elected him, brought very minimal personal needs and already selected his living arrangements in a priest retirement home.

  9. Here is what Professor Karen King says about this ancient writing in the Harvard theological review as part of a question and answer session.

    3. What is the significance of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife?

    If ancient, this tiny, damaged fragment provides tantalizing glimpses into issues about family, discipleship, and marriage that concerned ancient Christians. The main topic of the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples is one that deeply concerned early Christians, who were asked to put loyalty to Jesus before their natal families, as the New Testament gospels show. Christians were talking about themselves as a family, with God the Father, his son Jesus, and members as brothers and sisters. The particular focus in the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, however, is on women: his mother, Mary, his wife, and a female disciple. The disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy, and Jesus states that “she can be my disciple.” These signs indicate some controversy over whether women who are sexually active (mothers and wives) can be disciples of Jesus. Other early Christian writings defend marriage and reproduction against fellow Christians who think virginity and celibacy are required for all, or who argue that “women are not worthy of life.”

    This gospel fragment provides a reason to reconsider what we thought we knew by asking what role claims about Jesus’ marital status played historically in early Christian controversies over marriage, celibacy, and family. The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife makes it possible to say that some early Christians believed that Jesus was married. This conclusion potentially has significant implications for the history of ancient Christian attitudes toward marriage, sexuality, and reproduction.

  10. Great insights. 'm new to this blog and and so excited to have found you. I found you by searching "catholic shaman" which I am finding I am. I have my own blog that pen along similar issues, but not limited to Catholicism. You might enjoy it. :) Thank you for being a fellow voice on another way of being Catholic. :)

    Lauri Lumby
    Authentic Freedom Ministries
    Pastor, Spiritual Director
    Oshkosh, WI

  11. This is I think, surely, the timeless struggle of a Christian in the world. To open oneself to God in the difficult circumstances of the world. Keep loving, keep moving forward.

  12. That is the task and it can get very complicated. Knotty so to speak.

  13. I think one strategy that is highly effective when accepting a position which may put one in conflict with their higher beliefs, is to accept it already having given yourself permission to leave if it threaten your commitment to your higher beliefs. In Pope Francis' case it strikes me his highest commitment is to the ideals of his priesthood. When those are truly threatened he has already given himself permission to leave.

    I give Pope Benedict many many kudos for opening that option up for this particular position, but then Benedict lived how corrupted the papacy got under JPII and so maybe took his lesson from that experience.

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  16. Church is a waste of time.