Pope Gregory the Great has always been a favorite saint within the Benedictine tradition, largely because he was one of us. Born into an aristocratic family in 6th-century Italy, he transformed one of his family estates into a monastery. He lived in community thereafter, and this included stints as papal ambassador in Constantinople and then as pope from 590-604.
Gregory was among the most accomplished of popes, and few popes have been his equal in terms of impact on the Church. He was a prolific writer, though no one thinks of him as an original intellect. To him we owe the Life of Saint Benedict, as well as his treatise, On Pastoral Care, which became a favorite across Europe within a century.
He was also an able administrator, and he organized the lands of the Church so that they better-served the needs of the poor. He was an accomplished diplomat as well. At a time when the Byzantine government was unable to impose law and order in Italy, Gregory threw the weight of his office into negotiation with the barbarian tribal kings. That initiative upset the bosses in Constantinople, but necessity trumped the niceties of protocol.
Most of all, I’ve admired Gregory’s insight in defining what became the diocesan and religious clergy. Gregory provided no textbook on this, but in his hundreds of letters he formulated a consistent separation of responsiblities and duties. The diocesan clergy were to dedicate themselves to parochial work; while the monks were to focus on life within the cloister. In practice, the religious tended to schools and community-based apostolates, and that has served the Church well for centuries. No wonder his portrait shows up on the walls of so many monasteries.
We celebrated Gregory’s feast day on September 3rd, and it struck me as an appropriate moment to formulate some thoughts on our latter-day religious pope, Francis. He’s been in office for several months now, and he’s just come off an August of quiet work in his office in Rome. Will he return to the headlines, or has his media star faded?
By now everyone has some sort of opinion about Pope Francis. Many admire him for his love of the poor. A few are disappointed that he’s not a clothes horse. Many like him for his apparent simplicity. Others fault him for not tackling the curia with guns blazing. As for me, I think he’s done an enormous amount of good already. But as the pundits have noted, Pope Francis is bound to disappoint virtually everybody, sooner or later. But I think that may be a point in his favor.
Up to now a lot of what Francis has done is best understood through the lens of religious life. Benedictines and Franciscans and Jesuits have distinct missions in the Church, but they all work out of some sense of community. No wonder Francis preferred not to reside in the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace. There he would live in a gilded cage, tended to by keepers who control any and all access to the pope. His best option was the Casa Santa Marta, where he can mix with guests at will and can see people whenever he likes. There he can be his own man, without courtiers guiding his every move.
History will likely judge his daily Masses as the defining element of his papacy. His homilies in particular have been striking, because in them he gets to say exactly what’s on his mind. But haven’t popes always gotten to say what’s on their minds? You’d be surprised.
All the recent popes have been nice guys, but can anyone remember a single line from any of their sermons? I know I don’t. In fact, I put those sermons in the category of “non-addictive sleep aids.” And the reason for all that tedium is simple. Papal sermons and documents are written for the archive, and have been edited accordingly. Popes may start with good ideas, but between idea and finished product these documents go through several stages of editorial revision. There can be no misunderstanding of a text, and hints of enthusiasm are the first things to go to the chopping block. No wonder they’ve had so little to say that sparked people in the pews.
Pope Francis has side-stepped that process, rather cleverly. He composes his thoughts in his study early in the morning. Then he walks the short distance to the chapel to deliver them. He meets no editors or censors on the way, and the thoughts on the readings for the day are his thoughts. This is strangely reminiscent of what parish priests do each morning!
Jesus got a lot of credit for speaking “with authority,” and I used to wonder what that meant. I now have a better notion, thanks to Pope Francis. When Jesus spoke he did not churn out commentaries and minute analysis of the Law and the Prophets. Instead he drew from common experience. His parables spoke to the imagination of ordinary people, and no wonder they still pique our curiosity after all these centuries.
Pope Francis seems to do the same thing. But where does he get his ideas? Well, I suspect he reads. He also prays. And in the course of his life as a priest he’s listened to countless confessions. Certainly he’s heard all the peccadillos that there can be, but he’s also heard all of the struggles that overwhelm ordinary people. No wonder he promotes the sacrament of reconciliation. It’s reality therapy for the penitent, and it’s a genuine education for the priest.
My conclusion is that both Jesus and Pope Francis speak from authority. Their’s is not the authority that derives from academic footnotes. Nor does Francis lean on the authority that comes from his job as the occupant of the chair of Peter. Certainly Pope Francis could speak that way, but he prefers to speak as he does because he knows where people are at. They are pilgrims, and so is he. And he is not the least bit afraid to speak from his personal experience. We’re just not used to hearing popes speak that way.
Pope Francis inaugurated the fall season on Saturday with a prayer service for peace in Syria. It didn’t bother me in the least that he prayed for four hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament, without benefit of red shoes or ermine-trimmed cape. Nor will I leave the Church because he didn’t wear cufflinks. By contrast, I was struck that 100,000 people would join him, and that in the group were many Muslims. One could find that miraculous, until you realize the object of their prayers. Such prayer becomes intensely personal when your relatives run the risk of being killed and your world hurled into conflict. Such prayer is no longer an academic exercise.
I’m under no illusion that Pope Francis will make the Curia perfect by October. Nor will he complete all the other goals that you and I expect of him by November. I’m confident that he’ll give it his best shot, however. Meantime, I think that each morning Pope Francis will tend to his first and major goal, which is to lead people to an encounter with Jesus Christ. If he’s successful, it won’t leave much of a mark in the archives. But he will certainly touch an awful lot of human hearts.
+On September 4th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and I entitled my sermon Jesus Didn’t go into Private Practice. That same day I began a several-day siege with allergies. For the better part of three days I had no voice, which my confreres did not seem to mind at all.
+The new school year at Saint John’s University began on August 26th. The return of the students always brings added excitement, and on the athletic front there were two innovations. On August 30th we dedicated our new soccer field, and the team went on to win their first game on the new turf. For me the Prayer of Blessing for a Soccer Field was particularly intriguing. Though the prior read it in the rite of blessing, it was Fr. Michael Kwatera who authored the prayer. He is among the most talented prayer writers anywhere. As for football, our new coach won the first game of the season, and his first as head coach, on September 6th. If he can keep up this unspoiled record, he could surpass the won-loss record of our retired coach in about fifty years.
+In the monastic refectory we are reading a book by Elizabeth Rapley, entitled The Lord as their Patron: The Story of the Religious Orders and How They Shaped Our World (Eardmans, 2011). I find it extremely interesting, as do most of my confreres.
+While in Germany I had the opportunity to stay in a schloss that was originally built to house a community of Benedictine monks. Its quadrangular architectural style is repeated in the design of the quadrangle at Saint John’s. In many ways, then, I felt very much at home rattling around in the spacious halls. Most of the pictures in today’s post come from there. Also included are two pictures of a small chapel where we celebrated Mass every day.