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The Pope who put a spring in our step

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Frank Brennan |  19 September 2013

I join you in paying tribute to Fr Tony Frey, the parish priest of our parish of the Transfiguration at Curtin and Garran. Tony marks his 40th year of priesthood this year — four decades of exemplary pastoral service making him the go-too priest for so many people in Canberra during their hour of need or on their special day of celebration. I join you in congratulating Tony and thanking God for Tony's dedicated priestly service. As we all know, Tony is not much given to ceremony or to authority. But tonight he has asked me at this annual parish dinner to say something about our new Pope Francis, a religious leader who has put a spring in the step of many people and not just Catholics, a pope and bishop who has lightened and enlightened the heart of many, including our parish pastor.

At mass at Curtin on the Fifth Sunday of Lent just after the election of our new pope, I recall greeting you with these words: 'Good evening. My name is Frank and I am a Jesuit. I've had a good week. I hope you have too.' I have been overwhelmed by the positive response by all sorts of people to the election of the first Jesuit pope. I have happily received the congratulations without quite knowing what to do with them, nor what I did to deserve them! It's still early days in his pontificate, but I think he has opened up a vast new panacea and not just for Catholics. Francis is theologically orthodox, politically conservative, comfortable in his own skin, infectiously pastoral, and truly committed to the poor. Of late, most thinking Catholics engaged in the world have wondered how you could possibly be theologically orthodox and infectiously pastoral at the one time, how you could be politically conservative and still have a commitment to the poor, how you could be comfortable in your own skin - at ease in Church and in the public square, equally comfortable and uncomfortable in conversation with fawning devotees and hostile critics. Think only of Francis's remark during the press conference on the plane on the way back from World Youth Day: 'If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge him?' Gone are the days of rainbow sashes outside Cathedrals and threats of communion bans.

As Francis says in this week's lengthy interview he did for the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica: 'We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are 'socially wounded' because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them.' In that interview he recalls:

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: 'Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?' We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

Here is a pope who is not just about creating wiggle room or watering down the teachings of the Church. No, he wants to admit honestly to the world that we hold in tension definitive teachings and pastoral yearnings — held together coherently only by mercy and forgiveness.

He explains:

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

If we are honest with ourselves, many of us have wondered how we can maintain our Christian faith and our commitment to the Catholic Church in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis and the many judgmental utterances about sexuality and reproduction — the Church that has spoken longest and loudest about sex in all its modalities seems to be one of the social institutions most needing to get its own house in order in relation to trust, fidelity, love, respect and human dignity. Revelations out of Melbourne and Newcastle and the pending national royal commission hearings leave us with heavy hearts especially about some of our local church leadership before 1996 but we do have a spring in our step that this new Pope, together with rigorous, independent legal processes (even in the face of much media pre-judgment) and local church commitments to transparency and solicitous care of victims, including the establishment of the Truth Justice and Healing Council, provide us with the structures and leadership necessary for 'cooperation, openness, full disclosure and justice for victims and survivors'. The chief Christian paradox is that we are lowly sinners who dare to profess the highest ideals, and that sometimes we cannot do it on our own — we need the help of our critics and the State. Our greatest possibilities are born of the promise of forgiveness and redemption, the hope of new life emerging from suffering and even death. Out of our past failings and our present shame can come future promise and hope.

Something crystallised for me at an appearance in March this year at the Opera House with the British philosopher A C Grayling, author of The God Argument, and Sean Faircloth, a US director of one of the Dawkins Institutes passionately committed to atheism. We were there to discuss their certainty about the absurdity of religious faith. Mr Faircloth raised what has already become a hoary old chestnut, the failure of Pope Francis when provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina during the Dirty Wars to adequately defend his fellow Jesuits who were detained and tortured by unscrupulous soldiers. Being a Jesuit, I thought I was peculiarly well situated to respond. I confess to having got a little carried away. I exclaimed: Yes, how much better it would have been if there had been just one secular, humanist, atheist philosopher who had stood up in the city square in Buenos Aires and shouted, 'Stop it!' The military junta would have collectively come to their senses, stopped it, and Argentinians would have lived happily ever after. The luxury for such philosophers is that they never have to get their hands dirty and they think that religious people who do are hypocrites unless of course they take the course of martyrdom. It's only as Church that I think we can hold together ideals and reality, commitment and forgiveness.

Before we canonise Francis too quickly, let's concede that he was a divisive figure in his home province of Argentina when was made Jesuit Provincial at the age of only 36. The Tablet in recent weeks has carried extracts from Paul Vallely's new book Pope Francis: Untying the Knots which includes the explosive email sent by one of the serving Jesuit provincials in another Latin American country when Bergoglio's election was announced in St Peter's Square. This Jesuit provincial wrote:

Yes I know Bergoglio. He's a person who's caused a lot of problems in the Society and is highly controversial in his own country. In addition to being accused of having allowed the arrest of two Jesuits during the time of the Argentinian dictatorship, as provincial he generated divided loyalties: some groups almost worshipped him, while others would have nothing to do with him, and he would hardly speak to them. It was an absurd situation. He is well-trained and very capable, but is surrounded by this personality cult which is extremely divisive. He has an aura of spirituality which he uses to obtain power. It will be a catastrophe for the Church to have someone like him in the Apostolic See. He left the Society of Jesus in Argentina destroyed with Jesuits divided and institutions destroyed and financially broken. We have spent two decades trying to fix the chaos that the man left us.

Like all of us, Francis has feet of clay; he is a sinner; there are things in his past that he regrets. As Francis himself now admits: 'My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults. That was a difficult time for the Society: an entire generation of Jesuits had disappeared. Because of this I found myself provincial when I was still very young. I was only 36 years old. That was crazy. I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself.' He is a man who has learnt much by his mistakes; he is a sinner who has grown and thrived through his experience of the Lord's mercy. As he says, 'My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative. I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Cordova. To be sure, I have never been like Blessed Imelda [a goody-goody], but I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems. I say these things from life experience and because I want to make clear what the dangers are. Over time I learned many things. The Lord has allowed this growth in knowledge of government through my faults and my sins.' What a Jesuit; what a Pope; what a man!

There are many things that his erstwhile critics regret. Having fallen out with many Jesuits in his home province, he enjoyed the favour of Pope John Paul II. There were tensions between him and Fr Pedro Arrupe, the Superior General of the Jesuits at the time of the Jesuit General Congregations which defined the Jesuit mission in terms of faith AND justice. The greatness of Francis has been in his capacity to transcend these differences and to be gracious even to those opposed to his viewpoints after many years of silence and isolation. It was very heartening for Jesuits of all stripes to learn of Francis's Mass at the Gesu Church in Rome on the Feast of St Ignatius on 31 July 2013. He visited the tomb of Pedro Arrupe. Just as he had mentioned Matteo Ricci and Karl Rahner in his earlier visit to the offices of La Civilta Cattolica, he mentioned Francis Xavier and Pedro Arrupe in his homily at the Gesu — each time linking an historic and contemporary figure, and each time the contemporary figure being one who had difficult relations with the Vatican from time to time. It's a long time since any Pope mentioned Karl Rahner or Pedro Arrupe in a positive light. In his homily for the feast of St Ignatius, Francis said:

I have always liked to dwell on the twilight of a Jesuit, when a Jesuit is nearing the end of life, on when he is setting. And two images of this Jesuit twilight always spring to mind: a classical image, that of St Francis Xavier looking at China. Art has so often depicted this passing, Xavier's end. So has literature, in that beautiful piece by Pemán. At the end, without anything but before the Lord; thinking of this does me good. The other sunset, the other image that comes to mind as an example is that of Fr Arrupe in his last conversation in the refugee camp, when he said to us — something he used to say — 'I say this as if it were my swan song: pray'. Prayer, union with Jesus. Having said these words he took the plane to Rome and upon arrival suffered a stroke that led to the sunset — so long and so exemplary — of his life. Two sunsets, two images, both of which it will do us all good to look at and to return to. And we should ask for the grace that our own passing will resemble theirs.

As Catholics we can bring God's blessings to all in our world, even those who have no time for our Church and not much interest in our Lord. Remember how Pope Francis ended his address to the journalists in Rome with a blessing with a difference. He said:

I told you I was cordially imparting my blessing. Since many of you are not members of the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I cordially give this blessing silently, to each of you, respecting the conscience of each, but in the knowledge that each of you is a child of God. May God bless you!

Now that's what I call a real blessing for journalists — and not a word of Vaticanese. Respect for the conscience of every person, regardless of their religious beliefs; silence in the face of difference; affirmation of the dignity and blessedness of every person; offering, not coercing; suggesting, not dictating; leaving room for gracious acceptance. These are all good pointers for us Catholics helping to form the Church of the 21st century holding the treasure of tradition, authority and ritual in trust for all the people of God, including your children and grandchildren, as we discern how best to make a home for God in our lives and in our world, assured that the Spirit of God has made her home with us.

In his recent address to the Brazilian bishops, Pope Francis warned that we must not yield to the fear once expressed by Blessed John Henry Newman that 'the Christian world is gradually becoming barren and effete, as land which has been worked out and is become sand'. Francis said, 'We must not yield to disillusionment, discouragement and complaint. We have laboured greatly and, at times, we see what appear to be failures. We feel like those who must tally up a losing season as we consider those who have left us or no longer consider us credible or relevant.'

Francis drew upon one of his favourite gospel scenes, Luke's account of the disillusioned disciples on the Road to Emmaus failing to recognise the one who broke open the scriptures to them, then recognising him belatedly in the breaking of the bread:

Here we have to face the difficult mystery of those people who leave the Church, who, under the illusion of alternative ideas, now think that the Church — their Jerusalem — can no longer offer them anything meaningful and important. So they set off on the road alone, with their disappointment. Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas, perhaps the world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions; perhaps the Church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age.

Asking what then are we to do, Francis answers:

We need a Church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a Church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a Church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning.

Francis has shown us that our faith is about much more than Church and internal Catholic matters. Think just of his recent visits to Lampedusa and then to the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome. He has put a very strong challenge to the West about our treatment of asylum seekers — a challenge which hopefully will be heard even here in Australia by the very Catholic Abbott ministry as they consider turning back the boats.

Lampedusa continues to be a beacon for asylum seekers fleeing desperate situations in Africa seeking admission into the EU. Lampedusa is a lightning rod for European concerns about the security of borders in an increasingly globalized world where people as well as capital flow across porous borders. That's why Pope Francis went there on his first official papal visit outside Rome. At Lampedusa on 8 July 2013, Pope Francis said:

'Where is your brother?' Who is responsible for this blood? In Spanish literature we have a comedy of Lope de Vega which tells how the people of the town of Fuente Ovejuna kill their governor because he is a tyrant. They do it in such a way that no one knows who the actual killer is. So when the royal judge asks: 'Who killed the governor?', they all reply: 'Fuente Ovejuna, sir'. Everybody and nobody! Today too, the question has to be asked: Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters of ours? Nobody! That is our answer: It isn't me; I don't have anything to do with it; it must be someone else, but certainly not me. Yet God is asking each of us: 'Where is the blood of your brother which cries out to me?' Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: 'poor soul…!', and then go on our way. It's not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn't affect me; it doesn't concern me; it's none of my business!

Here we can think of Manzoni's character — 'the Unnamed'. The globalization of indifference makes us all 'unnamed', responsible, yet nameless and faceless.

Then on his recent visit to the Jesuit Church in Rome he said:

After Lampedusa and other places of arrival, our city, Rome, is the second stage for many people. Often — as we heard — it's a difficult, exhausting journey; what you face can even be violent — I'm thinking above all of the women, of mothers, who endure this to ensure a future for their children and the hope of a different life for themselves and their family. Rome should be the city that allows refugees to rediscover their humanity, to start smiling again. Instead, too often, here, as in other places, so many people who carry residence permits with the words 'international protection' on them are constrained to live in difficult, sometimes degrading, situations, without the possibility of building a life in dignity, of thinking of a new future!

Some of this sounds like politics! In his regular homily at mass on Monday this week, Francis made it clear that the gospel and politics do mix. Reflecting on the centurion who asked healing for his servant, Francis said that those who govern 'have to love their people,' because 'a leader who doesn't love, cannot govern — at best they can discipline, they can give a little bit of order, but they can't govern.' He mentioned 'the two virtues of a leader': love for the people and humility. 'You can't govern without loving the people and without humility! And every man, every woman who has to take up the service of government, must ask themselves two questions: 'Do I love my people in order to serve them better? Am I humble and do I listen to everybody, to diverse opinions in order to choose the best path.' If you don't ask those questions, your governance will not be good. The man or woman who governs — who loves his people is a humble man or woman.' Francis insisted that none of us can be indifferent to politics: 'None of us can say, 'I have nothing to do with this, they govern. . . .' No, no, I am responsible for their governance, and I have to do the best so that they govern well, and I have to do my best by participating in politics according to my ability. Politics, according to the Social Doctrine of the Church, is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good. I cannot wash my hands, eh? We all have to give something!' He then became a little playful in his homily: ''A good Catholic doesn't meddle in politics.' That's not true. That is not a good path. A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself, so that those who govern can govern. But what is the best that we can offer to those who govern?'. He concluded:? 'So, we give the best of ourselves, our ideas, suggestions, the best, but above all the best is prayer. Let us pray for our leaders, that they might govern well, that they might advance our homeland, might lead our nation and even our world forward, for the sake of peace and of the common good.'

Our Catholic voice must be heard in season and out of season when it comes to laws and policies impacting on the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalised — the poor, the widow and the orphan. We must not be afraid to mix it in the world. It's not as if our Catholic tradition gives us fixed answers to all problems but it equips us with principles and a culture well suited to seeking the good, the true and the beautiful in any situation. We are called in the Ignatian tradition to find God in all things, and to discern God's presence in the life of every person. In this week's interview Francis said:

If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal 'security,' those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person's life. God is in everyone's life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person's life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.

And to cap it all off: on 17 September 2013, Francis was 'in attendance' in a simple white cassock, not presiding and not concelebrating, at the episcopal ordination Mass of the new papal almoner (the official distributor of alms), Archbishop Konrad Krajewski. Francis briefly put a stole around his neck and laid hands on the newly consecrated bishop. You could almost hear the episcopal gasps and see the shock of the liturgists and canon lawyers from here on the other side of the globe! Fasten your seat belts. We are in for an exciting ride with this Pope. He's happy to make mistakes. He's happy to go with the flow. But above all, he is so happy in his own skin and in his religious tradition that he exudes the confidence that comes only from knowing that he is loved and forgiven, and not from thinking that he is always right and has all the answers. I daresay that's why our pastor Tony Frey approves.


Frank Brennan headshotFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University, and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. He gave this reflection on Pope Francis at the Southern Cross Club Parish of the Transfiguration Parish Dinner, East Woden,  20 September 2013.

 



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What a fabulous account of a very human Pope. Thank you Fr Frank. I wish with all my heart that our new (Jesuit educated) PM would take on board the quote by Francis at the Jesuit Church in Rome, "Rome should be the city that allows refugees to rediscover their humanity, to start smiling again...." That is the opportunity we are give here in this lucky country of Australia but sadly our leaders choose the opposite path

John O'Hanlon 20 September 2013

Having noted your article Fr Brennan, no mention is made of an inappropriate papal image of laity [not found in Vatican 2]. His Holiness uses the image of malodorous sheep that shepherds must be among" 'shepherds living with the smell of the sheep'[with the newly struck Pope Francis Eau de Cologne?]. Not a word from the new gaggle of liberal selective ultramontane, hanging on every papal word, as if infallible-the very ones who castigated pope BXVI for alluding to the laity as 'the simple ones'.

Father John George 21 September 2013

And now Fr Brennan re 'spring in step' that papal volte face,'defrocking' / excomunicating a Melbourne priest!

Father John George 21 September 2013

Ultramontanism - spot on, Fr George! Who would have thought liberal Catholics would be into it some day? Even so, it's still quintissentially liberal, cafeteria ultramontanism. I'll happily eat my words on that the day I see the liberals honour Pope Francis with more than their garlands, by joining him in Right to Life marches, describing same sex marriage recognition as the work of the devil, and speaking of the men-only priesthood as binding church teaching. Etc, etc.

HH 22 September 2013

Re the smell of the sheep, Francis does say: "And the church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows. Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together. This is what I understand today as the ‘thinking with the church’ of which St. Ignatius speaks. When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. So this thinking with the church does not concern theologians only."

Frank Brennan SJ 22 September 2013

On reading the interview with Pope Francis I was struck by by his first statement 'I am a sinner'. So he's one of 'us'! Much wisdom, too, in his forthright views on topics important to the church. To be happy in our own skin - a very worthwhile goal.

Pam 23 September 2013

For some follow up on these thoughts of Pope Francis, listen to the Sunday night conversation about “Politics in the Pulpit” on ABC radio at http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/local/sundaynights/201309/r1177674_15024456.mp3

Frank Brennan SJ 23 September 2013

Whether we remain a member of a group which has moved away from us in several ways, or stay friends with someone who has done the same, is an intensely personal decision. It may require judgments about right and wrong in others, as well as an awareness that we may be wrong in our judgments. Fr Brennan's words have reminded me, one who has moved away from the Church, of the need to remain open. This includes a willingness to revisit, to listen again, to the voice of the Church. It is not difficult to listen to the Pope or Fr Brennan because theIr words are open to the possibility of change. Sometimes that change occurs in the course of one's own life, sometimes in others. To hold fixed, immutable views, as dogma or otherwise, closes us off from the possibility of necessary change.

Tony Macklin 23 September 2013

And Fr Brennan, the litmus paper-test and touchstone of authentic 'Sensus Fidelium' is the magisterium [Lumen Gentium:12] versus opportunistic, collective, heterodox deception What's more. other elegant sayings of His Holiness on laity, don't account for the liberal ultramontane wall of silence re Francis' fetid, mephitic sheep[such laity, much less well-informed than Bxvi sweet smelling "simple ones."]

Father John George 23 September 2013

Thank you Fr Frank for reminding us of true Christian values and action. Politics is just charity on a societal level because the good of the all and the individual are points we strive to protect and improve.

Danny Higgins 23 September 2013

In the last two phrases you have summed up the message: Spot on, Frank. Thanks

Feruccio Romanin SJ 29 September 2013

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