The Fatherly Aspect of the Holy Father

I don’t write much about the Roman Catholic Church since the polemical days when the Ordinariates were founded and the muddy waters of the TAC became clear to the satisfaction of some and the disappointment of others. I followed the entire movement and refrained from the black / white positions of some, and saw it as an aspect of the old “corporate reunion” movement which failed every time it approached Rome. A compromise solution has been put into place, in which some priests are able to do good pastoral work and others have a more spiritual mission. I have long ago ceased my contribution to the polemics and turned the page by moving to the ACC.

In spite of the ACC’s early decision not to avail of Anglicanorum coetibus, we honour and respect the Papacy and the authority of the Popes. Each Pope has his personal style. Benedict XVI timidly tried to implement the luminous ideas about the liturgy expressed in his writings and a notion of moderate and discerning restoration in the Church. Make the Church more spiritual and many of the moral and pastoral problems could be solved. Whatever made Benedict XVI decide to abdicate, many of his fundamental insights have been resumed by Pope Francis.

Pope Francis gave a long interview to La Civiltà Cattolica A Big Heart open to God. The traditionalist in us will be cringing and wondering how a Pope can take such risks by ceasing to issue condemnations of bad morals and problems in society. Like Benedict XVI, he seeks to put the spiritual aspect over the letter of the law and preserving the institution at any cost. I don’t envy him!

Not being a conservative Roman Catholic, I do not have the obligation of trying to defend the Pope at all costs and prove his hermeneutic of continuity from the pre-conciliar Pontiffs. You can read the interview in its place, but I’ll just pick up a few points that stand out for me.

Until now, we have had the impression of returning to the 1970’s and the days of Paul VI. There is a difference. Paul VI was a diplomat and a curial bureaucrat, and the clergy and people on the ground still remembered the “old ways”. This time, we have a profoundly spiritual religious priest and a pastor who really lives a simple and austere life.

Pope Francis is a Jesuit. I am reasonably familiar with the Exercises of St Ignatius. It’s not really my way, and I find it all too methodical, but the wisdom is undeniable. Particularly, there is the discernment of spirits. There is a gentleness to the Ignatian way that many don’t recognise. I have known Fr Hugh Thwaites in London, who was a saintly priest and gave me help as I was on the doorstep of my old seminary. The French have a saying – Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. Seeking perfection often derails us from doing good and seeing to the basic aspects. We can get bogged down in details instead of seeing the essentials. I have always been able to discern magnanimity and generosity in superiors. The more hearts are open to us, the more we will serve with generosity of heart. Ask for little and people will be encouraged to do better.

Discerning the will of God is difficult, because most of us don’t have extraordinary experiences. We have to rely on intuition and read our own feelings. It is fragile and leaves us open to error, but we have to have something. The fundamental rule is not to make a decision when you’re upset. That is the common sense of generations of religious and non-religious people. Sometimes, we just have to wait for an answer – only to find that we have to go and get it ourselves. All too often, our first thoughts about something are wrong, but they can also be right as with first impressions.

Pope Francis’ notion of the priestly vocation is of course coloured by his commitment to the Jesuit way of life. Given that, some of his reflections are surprising and show an extraordinary breadth of tolerance. The first thing is to be genuinely pious and devoted to serving God, and then to be gentle and loving.

Pope Francis has always been in positions of authority, Provincial from the age of 36. This gives him a view of things I will never have. I have never been a leader, and don’t have the charisma to be one. Was Bergoglio ambitious? That is a difficult question, but I don’t have the impression.

Thinking with the Church, a much-abused concept, has always been high in my mind. I prefer to trust the judgement of my Bishop rather than my own, but I know he isn’t infallible. He too can be wrong, but I can only trust he isn’t most of the time – through his experience and grace of state. Newman often wrote about the consensus of the Church. The more united in symbiosis we are, the less likely we are to be victims of sin and error. The communion of the Church protects each of us.

Pope Francis isn’t afraid to fall into the trap of the highly polemical subject of homosexuality, between the extreme positions of how things were in the past, for example in the Victorian era, and the militant “gaystapo” lobby. We need to approach this issue from an intellectual and above all pastoral point of view. That is a tough one, and the media feed on it with a frenzy!

The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.

These are warming words after having seen the way the “fallen” are rejected and forced to become spiritual outlaws because or errors they committed in discerning their vocations. I avoid pleading my own cause, but I have cut out the bad bit from my life, though I remain indelibly marked by it, and not only by the Sacrament of Order. Do we want a Church that locks people out inextricably for reasons similar to my own, or because their marriages went as wrong as my own priestly vocation? What kind of Church would we like to see, a “perfect” institution that even good people come to reject – or something that picks up the sinner out of his mess and re-establishes him or her to the dignity of a Christian? This is now a real issue, but also a very old one.

This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace. The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better.

This way of discernment and mercy is so rarely present in blogs, in which we cannot even hear each other’s voices and get the least idea of personalities. A prophetic wind blows through the Church, something Benedict XVI the liturgically traditionalist Pope saw the need of.

Will Pope Francis succeed in reforming the aspects of the Church that have caused some of us great pain? How would that be possible? We can only wait and see, and cling to our ships and lifeboats where we can find some degree of safety.

The section on Certitude and Mistakes strikes home for me. All too often, people in the Roman Catholic Church who make mistakes in their vocations and life are only fit to be destroyed and discarded without mercy. Fallen priests in the “old days” could find redemption as monks or as “auxiliary priests” in city parishes, like the pre-Reformation chantry priests. Many of those men came to great heights of holiness in their abnegation and humility. Nowadays, they are just told to go away. Certitude is a problem in Churches, where we all have to call ourselves into question. Do we have all the answers? I think not. We are looking for God’s will, and so much noise in the world makes that discernment so difficult.

If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing.

Pope Francis may have used inappropriate terms to describe traditionalists, but he is right that safety and security are but illusions in this life. Our only certitude is that one day we will die and face Judgement. Lack of certitude has to go with hope, something about which Benedict XVI and Francis are developing so well in their teaching.

Christian hope is not a ghost and it does not deceive. It is a theological virtue and therefore, ultimately, a gift from God that cannot be reduced to optimism, which is only human. God does not mislead hope; God cannot deny himself. God is all promise.

Finally, many of us have been used to considering Pope Francis as a philistine in matters of art and beauty. He seems to have little interest in the liturgy or music, but there are other expressions of art in the spoken and written word, and in painting and sculpture. We all have different perspectives. I am sensitive to music, literature and speech – but I have not developed drawing and painting in my life. We read that Pope Francis appreciates the great musical classics and has wide tastes from classical to romantic.

Creativity is an uppermost theme, and this reminds me of the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev in his extraordinary works. These are the old-school Jesuits who devoted themselves to art and science in order to evangelise the real world through every walk of life. This is a far cry from “factory-produced priests”.

This is an illuminating interview, which should dispel many of our prejudices and received ideas. We need to open our minds and hearts and seek to do God’s will just where we are.

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One Response to The Fatherly Aspect of the Holy Father

  1. Brian Taber says:

    Thank you Father for this reflection.

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