I am a convert. If I wanted to be my own Pope, I’d have stayed Protestant. That is to say, I accept that it is the exclusive right of the Church headed by the Pope, not mine as an individual, to decide what is authentic Christian belief and practice. She teaches, I can only repeat the teaching (and try to live by it). One of the things she teaches is that nobody becomes Pope except God wills it. That was true in the days when men became Bishop of Rome – Pope – apparently by popular acclamation. Truth being constant, it remains so under the well-known procedures of a modern conclave. When the Holy Ghost moves the cardinal-electors to name as Pope somebody from among themselves, it is not for me to question His action. I may not understand what He is up to, but He doesn’t make mistakes. If I don’t believe that, I am not fully Catholic.
Of course as an individual I have my druthers as well as convictions. In politics, I’d rather live in a global Christian empire ruled by a monarch like Charles V instead of the actually existing globalist system run by men like those who gather every year in Davos, Switzerland. In religion, I’d see it as wonderful if Bl. Pope Pius IX, author of the “Syllabus of Errors”, could have been elected by the last conclave, but he wasn’t in the room. When it comes to art, more than that of antiquity or Medieval time, let alone the modern age, I am enamored of the high Renaissance and especially the Baroque – the art of the Counter-Reformation. I love the music, painting, sculpture and architecture –the style –of that period. My love of it spills over into my Catholicism.
I can look at pictures of Ven. Pope Pius XII on high ceremonial occasions wearing the papal tiara and seated in the sedia gestatoria being carried by twelve footmen, the palafrenieri, and flanked by flabella and members of the Noble Guard, and looking, feel real regret that I didn’t see this survival of the Baroque with my own eyes. The pictures were made in my lifetime. So much has been lost so fast. However, I get more than a mere taste of it every Sunday morning when I go to the Church of St. Mary Mother of God in downtown Washington to worship according to the extraordinary rite, which is to speak of the Mass of Trent, a masterpiece of the Baroque.
That said, I am able to distinguish between Tradition, one of the means, along with Sacred Scripture, for transmitting Christian belief down the centuries, and merely human traditions. I know the Church remains the Church, Mass is still Mass, when things no longer look as they did in Italy circa 1550.
I don’t want to go too far here. That which is usually called “style” does matter. The invisible, God becoming present on the altar, is made more manifest, so to speak, by the rubrics of the Mass of Trent than by those of the Mass of Pope Paul VI. Our feeling toward Him will be different if we receive Him on the tongue while kneeling than if we take Him in our hand, something I’ve never been able to bring myself to do. But I can imagine circumstances when I might. What if I were a worker in a Chinese prison-camp factory such as some say still exist and with a quick nod somebody walking down the assembly line slipped a consecrated host into my hand? I’d probably take it, hungrily, without saying “This shouldn’t be in my hand” or asking “How was this consecrated?”
What have these thoughts to do with the new pontificate? Frankly I was appalled by the attitude of many Catholics of traditional bent when Pope Francis was elected, Catholics so lacking in docility and so filled with presumption they felt free to pronounce immediately on his fitness for his new office as if the Holy Ghost had designated them! One thing that agitated them was that he didn’t seem especially welcoming to the extraordinary rite, but that wasn’t what really got them going. All he had to do was speak of the “preferential option for the poor” and they reacted as if Gustavo Gutierrez or Leonardo Boff had just become Pope. How unseemly! What nonsense!
I’ve been around, and writing about Catholic things, for a long time. I can remember in the summer of 1977 when I was reporting on events in Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas would soon take over, and being told by a Jesuit at the University of Central America in Managua: “The most important task of the Church today is to baptize Marx as Aristotle was baptized by Saint Thomas.” There was liberation theology, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the background of Pope Francis to make a reasonable person conclude he holds that view. Not that there will be any allaying in the unreasonable the suspicion that he might.
That is no more likely than putting to rest the charge raised from the political and religious left that in the 1970s, during Argentina’s “dirty war,” Pope Francis colluded with the country’s military rulers to silence priests like the one in Managua. To me, the charge produces more than a whiff of The Deputy. It stinks of it, and most offensively not simply in any comparison it suggests between Pope Francis and the “guilt” of Ven. Pope Pius XII, but in the preposterousness of likening Argentina’s generals to the Nazis. Perhaps on another occasion I’ll write about the “dirty war,” a subject about which I know more than most Americans who open their mouths about it, but there are other points I want to register before I’m finished here.
(Actually I have written about it, and probably to the extent I ever will, in my novella Young Tony and the Priest; Coming to Belief in an Age of Unbelief. All I would add here is that men of good will should realize that it wasn’t against merely a bunch of youthful intellectuals sitting around in cafes talking about revolution that the Argentine military acted. Political killings and bombings – terrorist acts – made every day in Buenos Aires and other Argentine cities like Boston this past Patriot’s Day.)
During the past two millennia the Church as a human institution operating in the world has done what she must to survive – to survive and try to thrive. Before aristocrats lost belief in their right to rule, she was their friend. When their rule was replaced by that of the bourgeoisie, no institution was more middle-class than the Church, sometimes suffocatingly so. Today “the people” rule, if not the mob, and the Church is not the only institution to adjust to this democratism. Almost the entire next generation of European monarchs are married to commoners. In the U.S., don’t we see in election after election that anyone really can become president (after being careful to campaign in his shirtsleeves)? Naturally enough, when a Pope becomes infirm these days, instead of the sedia gestatoria being hauled out of Vatican storage, he gets trundled down the center aisle of St. Peter’s on a silly-looking dolly.
Given the temper of the day, why would anybody wonder that we now have as Pope a man used to riding a bus and who has decided, for now (and to the delight of the media), not to live in the Apostolic Palace but in a residential hotel for clerics?
That brings me to a curious feature of the media’s portrayal of Francis as a people’s Pope. It is the news that when he’s in his hotel room of an evening, he’ll be listening to recordings of classical music and reading Dostoyevsky. If the news shows a willingness to tolerate an intellectual streak in the Pope, it can also be seen as useful to the media on the day they turn against him, and that day will come no matter how many persons in wheelchairs he stops to bless, sandwiches he makes for the Swiss Guard at his door, or synagogues he visits. It will as soon as he exercises his authority to buttress orthodoxy, or tries. Then we’ll see headlines like, “Pope Francis: Conservative in Populist Garb?” with a line that will say: “Some observers wondered about the authenticity of the Pope when they heard that he reads nineteenth-century Russian novelists and is not a fan of Argentine popular music.”
Of course it was in the spirit of democracy that so many, on the right as well as the left, felt free to pronounce on the fitness of Pope Francis after the conclave. It was reflected in the question virtually all Catholics were asking one another: “What do you think of the new Pope?” When I said to one man who put the question to me, “I’m not sure it’s for me to think anything about him,” he looked at me as if I was crazy. After all, in our day and age everybody may have, and indeed is expected to have and express, an opinion about everything no matter how far outside his competence it is, including even (when it comes to a papal election) the workings of the Holy Ghost. It is exactly what makes the day and age so dreary: constant exposure to idiocy. It behooves one not to add to it.
Of course the same democratic spirit fortifies the heretical belief in universal salvation. Why wouldn’t everybody go to Heaven? We’re all equal.
As for the Pope speaking of the poor as he does, let a very few things be observed without referencing 1) the Gospels, or 2) conditions familiar to the Pope and that are visible to travellers who bother to look on the outskirts of every Latin American capital, and sometimes in the center of town, from Mexico City to Buenos Aires. In the Age of Chivalry, when knights took their vows, they pledged to assist widows, orphans, the defenseless – in a word, the poor. In the last century, when Blessed Emperor Karl ordered court vehicles, cars and carriages, to transport coal in wintertime, it wasn’t to Vienna’s rich. And in the world of today, the one in which we as well as Pope Francis live, it’s not investment bankers and CEOs of multinational corporations who are made to suffer from globalism. Globalism is their baby.
The welfare of the poor is today, as it always has been, a natural Christian concern. The bankers and CEOs have their money. Our Lord and His Mother are often all that the poor have to console them. If they “encounter” them in the person of a smiling priest, or Pope, who also gives some immediate practical help (because charity is for today) Catholics who would see the cleric as other than he should be on account of it, whatever the cleric’s rank, should perhaps examine themselves. It is, after all, possible to be poor in spirit as well as in the pocketbook.