Archive for September 23rd, 2013

imagePope Francis Revisited

I confess that I have long been a fan of the rather warped humor in The Onion.  For those unfamiliar with its unique brand of satire, it specializes in articles that open with a faint ring of truth, and then lead you on with a sense of plausibility.   Only after a paragraph or two do readers begin to question the veracity of what’s there.  And what’s there is some of the cleverest fiction you can find anywhere in the newspapers.

Among my all-time favorites was the headline Florida State Announces Phase-out of Academics.  The story sounded official enough, since it opened with a statement from the office of the University president, announcing that all degree programs would be phased out.  This would at last free the football program to be the sole remaining department in that venerable institution of higher sports and learning.  At a stroke, he asserted, this would solve all the problems that have beset the players, whose academic programs had served no useful purpose anyway.  Many a coach around the country was taken in by the article, no doubt.  Many must have wondered aloud how they could do the same with their sponsoring institutions.  But alas, it was all a clever fraud.

In recent years The Onion has lost its competitive edge, however, and the reason for this is no secret.  Mainline newspapers have struggled for readership, and not a few have begun to infringe on the format of The Onion.  If fake or scarcely-researched news sells better than the real stuff, then why not give people what they want?

imageI was reminded of this by the spate of articles that have offered analysis of the words of Pope Francis, and not a few of these deserve to be on the pages of The Onion.  I laughed out loud, for example, at the commentator who speculated that the pope might at last allow nuns to marry.  In the Catholic tradition, for those who don’t know, a nun is someone who does not marry in order to commit herself to the service of God.  Allowing nuns to marry — and remain nuns — is like declaring that from now on black will be white and white black.  Maybe I missed a key piece in the writer’s logic, or maybe there was no logic there at all.  After careful thought, I’m leaning toward the latter interpretation.

Yet another howler came under the headline The Pope is a Liberal.  Since in his recent interview Pope Francis denied that he had ever been a right-winger, the writer rushed to conclude that the pope must therefore be a liberal, obviously.  What else could he be?  Well, there are other choices, including moderate, slightly left or right-of-center, as well as my own personal favorite: None of the above.  The author then quoted snippets from Pope Francis that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the pope is a liberal.  In fact, the quotations demonstrated two things.  First, they showed the pope’s mastery of the theological tradition of the Church.  Virtually everything he said in the interview comes out of that deep tradition.  Secondly, the citations also proved that the author of the article knew about as much theology as a mushroom (to cite a blast from the past against Meister Eckhardt.)  The language of Pope Francis did indeed sound new, but only to the mind of this unlettered journalist.

imageI don’t want to be too harsh on journalists, since most of them are doing their best with very limited resources.  Years ago newspapers stopped hiring writers who knew much of anything about religion.   That’s why, despite two big wars, most Americans still cannot tell the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni.  Not surprisingly then, writers often borrow from what they know best and apply the template to Catholic theology.  If American politics is either liberal or conservative, then so must be the Church.  What else is there?

Attempts by the mainline press and other media to pigeonhole Pope Francis are ultimately futile because Pope Francis defies such simplistic categories.  His love for Jesus Christ is steeped in the tradition of the Church and ultimately rests on the Gospels.  His love for pastoral work is rooted in his own experience as a shepherd of souls.  His love for the poor rests on his daily experience of seeing the poor and suffering all around him in Buenos Aires.  In these concerns he is neither radically liberal nor modern, nor is he alone.  Bishops and pastors and Catholics in pews around the world share these same priorities.

imageWhat Francis does seem to bring to the table is a sense of urgency that one also finds in the New Testament.  To carry the metaphor further, there are indeed times when one should care about how the table is set, but there are other times when it is more important to invite people to the table.  In the mind of Pope Francis, these are those times.

There is nothing unconventional or radically modern about wanting to help those who are hurting.  Ever since Jesus preached the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christians have seen it as a biblical command to help their injured neighbor get out of the ditch.  The fact that someone is hurting is qualification enough.  One need not nor ought not take an inventory of the injured party’s political or religious beliefs.  That can come later, if ever.  But for now the image of the Church as a field hospital is a most vivid one that Francis gives to believers of all stripes.

In the minds of serious analysts, the pope’s recent interview is a real blockbuster, and I would heartily agree.  It’s a blockbuster in his admission of his own mistakes.  It’s a blockbuster in his admission that sometimes the Church has run off on tangents and left people in the lurch and in the ditch, hurting.  It’s a blockbuster in his candid assessment that there is tremendous work to be done.

imageBut therein is the incredible hope he extends to all Catholics.  Francis reaches into the deep tradition of the Church to assemble his recipe for the regeneration of the Church.  He reminds us that the Church only lives and flourishes when its members serve those in greatest need.  And when he does that, Pope Francis reminds me of that other truly modern yet ancient figure, Mother Theresa.  She went out to the streets to collect the people whom the world labeled junk.  But all she wanted was to do something beautiful for God.  I suspect that idea might also be rattling around in the head of Pope Francis.

imageFor the pundits who may have written off the Church as dead, Pope Francis will likely be difficult to understand, if not a bitter pill to swallow.  They may even have to read a little theology to figure out what is going on.  As for the rest of us, if we want to understand all this, it might be best to go straight to the horse’s mouth, so to speak.  If you want to appreciate the fullness of what Francis has to say, don’t rely on some arid or overly-enthusiastic commentary.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t take my word for it.  Read the entire interview for yourself.  It’s truly astounding — like nothing you’ve ever heard from a pope.

And while I’ll warn you that it may not be the equal of the humor you’ll find in the pages of The Onion and its gaggle of imitators, it’ll surprise you nonetheless.  Who knows, it may even entertain.

To read the article for yourself visit http://www.americamagazine.org/pope-interview.


+On September 16th I said Mass and spoke at a luncheon in San Francisco for members of the Order of Malta in the Bay Area.  We celebrated the feast of the patron of the Order, Our Lady of Philermo.

+On 20-22 September I gave a three-day retreat to members of the American Association of the Order of Malta, held in Huntington, Long Island.  Besides the chance to meet 86 wonderful people, I also got to fulfill one of the items on my own to-do list.  For four years I lived in Connecticut on Long Island Sound, and for four years I looked across and wondered what was over on the New York side.  At long last I spent the night on the North Shore of Long Island and got to stare back to the Connecticut Shore.   From a distance, I am sorry to say, they both look the same.  The pictures in today’s post are from the site of our retreat, Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington.

image+After only one year and three months of prayer, on September 20th we received a new bishop in our diocese of Saint Cloud, MN.  For the monks of Saint John’s this was a very special surprise.  Our new shepherd, Bishop Donald Kettler, was born in Minneapolis, grew up and was ordained in Sioux Falls, SD, and later became bishop of Fairbanks.  In his first official interview he describes his move to Saint Cloud as a bit of homecoming.  Why?  He graduated from Saint John’s University in 1966, and he completed his seminary training at Saint John’s in 1970.  So he is twice a graduate of our school, and he lived with us for eight years.  He has visited Saint John’s many times since, but this time around we welcome him home!

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