Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pope Francis off-script: Is there a method to the madness?

Internet posts about Pope Francis's recent comments are proliferating like, well, rabbits as the secular media (as we'll as Catholic outlets) have fun with the image, and many faithful Catholics are tearing their hare hair out over Pope Francis' tendency to speak like an average Joe. Dr. Taylor Marshall sees that of two possible papal "styles" (one focused on Church members, the other a very different style that is more outward-facing), Pope Francis is taking the second:
An external approach would be to direct his teaching and speaking energies to the secular world which is either skeptical about the Church or downright opposed to it. The goal is bring about conversions from an unsuspecting society. An external approach crafts communicative missives to the skeptics, world leaders, and enemies of Christianity. Pope Francis is clearly of the second approach: external. 
Marshall is convinced that the needs of the Church are such that, for his part, he would advise Francis to give more attention to the "sheep in the fold and less attention on distracting the wolves outside."

I suppose that when Pope Emeritus Benedict stepped down (almost two years ago!), I would have easily assumed that the Pope was "our" Pope, and that what he said or did or wrote was primarily addressed to the immediate flock, who would be expected to mediate that, by word and example, to the rest of the world. But during the Pope's visit to Sri Lanka last week, I was struck by the openness of the largely Buddhist nation to Pope Francis, and especially the signs of honor shown him by the Buddhist communities. The words of the Gospel came to mind: "I have other sheep that are not of this flock. I must lead them, too." (John 10:16).  That could be the leit-motif of Francis' papacy.

Marshall is right: there are wolves out there. But mostly there are "sheep that are not of this flock" and Pope Francis, as Vicar of Christ, is their shepherd, too. A pastor who started his pontificate talking about the "smell of the sheep" can be expected to not just smell like the wandering flock, but speak their language. And that language is not Church lingo, not subtle, certainly not philosophically precise, but personal: meant to create a question, an opening in the heart of any (any at all) who hear; to start a real conversation, not a press conference; to break through complacence or to challenge assumptions. Certainly the rabbit remark went to the heart of many cultural assumptions, which is precisely why it stung faithful Catholics who are often on the receiving end of remarks like that. They are used to hearing such dismissive words on the part of critics; to hear the Pope himself use them must have been profoundly disconcerting, even if he was, in effect, quoting Church critics in order to affirm what the devout have been living (often heroically) all along.

As he goes out beyond the clear markers of the Catholic fold, Francis seems to be counting on the faithful to hold fast to the solid doctrine they have learned and taken to heart, interpreting his off-the-cuff remarks only and always in the light of the Catechism, the teachings of his predecessors, and (above all) the Gospel. It is abundantly clear that he is not going to repeat comforting messages for practicing Catholics when there are souls on the edge of a precipice. Francis is not speaking to the ages, as many Pontiffs before him, but to the person he is with, at the moment of the encounter, and he trusts that we are listening in with a "Catholic" ear.

The word "pontiff" means "bridge builder." How is Pope Francis' non-pontifical approachability actually an exercise of the pontifical ministry? How is he working to "gather into unity all the scattered children of God" (John 11:52)?

1 comment:

Sr Anne Flanagan said...

Similar points are being made over at the influential Catholic Vote site:
And I take this occasion to remind everyone that my e-book, 5 Keys to Understanding Pope Francis, is as valid as ever!