The Black-and-White Pope

A few days ago we all had a shocking surprise as a Latin American, Jesuit archbishop emerged onto the loggia of St. Peter’s to the general joy of the Catholic world.  The rejoicing was widespread, but not universal, with some expressing misgivings.  These are clearly natural reactions, to be expected in any election, sacred or secular, and they will be sorted out as time goes on.  When St. Ignatius heard of the accession to the papacy of the virulently anti-Jesuit Cardinal Carafa in 1555, he was “shaken to his bones” and immediately retired to his chapel to pray.  The great Emperor Charles V suffered a violent attack of jaundice upon hearing the same news.  No one expected the hard-line Paul IV to emerge from the conclave, yet according to contemporary reports he was elected quickly and unanimously.  In more recent history we find similar reactions.  In 1914 Giacomo della Chiesa was elected Benedict XV, at the head of an anti-curial, anti-Pius X rebellion.  Pius X’s powerful cardinal secretary of state voiced a concern “Goodness, what a calamity!”

I tell the above stories to indicate three points.  Firstly, feelings of reserve or concern upon a papal election are very common in all periods of history and such attitudes need not be characterized as anti-papal or anti-Catholic.  Secondly, the vituperation that has poured from both right and left against Francis (not to mention mutual condemnations of each from the center), is both unuseful and uncharitable.  Finally, there exist real concerns about the future direction of the Church, and those who make such concerns known—when they are presented in well-reasoned and charitable ways—ought not to be attacked and ostracized.  Rather all should proceed in the manner of the good and holy men I listed above.  St. Ignatius, rightly suspicious of Paul IV, some time later reemerged from his chapel with a serene countenance “as if his own candidate had won.” Charles V, head of a worldwide empire, yet exhausted by the political machinations of the papal curia, soon after retired to a monastery, having abandoned all his kingdoms.  As Merry del Val came up to make his obedience, Benedict XV whispered to him “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  Merry del Val, consummate diplomat and master of courtesy replied “This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes.”

Flag_of_Vatican_CityI was familiar with Papa Bergoglio before the conclave, and like most others had written him off as too elderly to be electable.  It is always a delightful surprise to find out concretely that the media often are completely in the dark about what transpires behind the closed doors.  I have spent several days getting to know Francis, and was privileged to be at one of his first audiences, that of the reception for journalists as well as at his Mass of Inauguration.

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Francis is clearly a very good and holy man, someone dedicated to a radical living out of the Christian message, whose expression radiates joy.  In his first speech he spoke of cleaving to the cross, and of the dangers of the devil.  He is a man who has been intimately involved with spiritual warfare.  While his speaking style is plain, it is effective.  He seems to be more of a storyteller than a formal, programmatic preacher.  While at the meeting with journalists, he seemed to break from his prepared text and regaled the assembly with the story of how he picked his papal name.  He joked that he could have chosen Adrian VII (after the short-lived reforming Dutchman Adrian VI), or that he could have gone with Clement XV, to get back at the Pope who had suppressed the Jesuits.  This provoked warm mirth throughout the audience hall.  Instead, after hearing the admonition of his fellow Latin American, Cardinal Hummes, “not to forget the poor,” Papa Bergoglio decided upon the name of Francis, one of the greatest and most beloved saints of the Church.

“It should be apparent that all of us are called not to communicate ourselves, but this existential triad made up of truth, beauty and goodness.”  This phrase at the audience particularly struck me and gave me hope.  Pope Francis conveyed to us the essential characteristic of self-effacement in the light of Being itself.  For Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, are metaphysical aspects of Being.  For Christians, that triad is incarnated in a Person, Jesus Christ.  Therefore whatever is True, and Good, and Beautiful must be for the building up of the Church and the human family.  As a corollary however, the three must always be together and never sundered.

The last two pontificates have been a powerful gift to the Church, picking up the pieces left by what Benedict XVI called the “Council of the Media,” or the erroneous misinterpretations of Vatican II which have caused so much damage.  If I may make a simplification, John Paul II was the pope of “Truth,” who (with Ratzinger) recalled the Church to its profession of orthodoxy, through catechesis and Catechism, through careful development and strong assertion of doctrine.  Benedict followed this by his emphasis on Beauty.  This was not an effete effort in sartorial splendor, as so many seem to dismiss it.  Rather it was a call to the Church to recognize the Beauty of Truth, embedded in human culture formed by the Word of God.  This was realized concretely in Benedict’s promotion of elevating music, both sacred and secular, of his liberation of the Extraordinary Form, of his retention of the graceful and marvelous elements of classical Anglican worship in the Ordinariate.  Even more was Benedict’s submission to his role as the successor of Peter, a man exuding humility yet conscious of his position as head of Christ’s Church on earth, which he carried out with decorum and dignity.

Now we hope Francis will complete the triad.  For while it is clear that John Paul and Benedict were very good men, they had different historical missions.  Francis can call us back to the Good, and to the imitation of Him who is the end and purpose of all desires.  It is true that too often those whose primary tasks involve Truth and Beauty can neglect the “Good.”  This can and must go beyond simply personal holiness and virtue.  It must extend to having the vision and courage to carry that goodness throughout the world, to care for the sick, the suffering, and the marginalized.  Francis seems exceedingly well equipped for that task, and I am certain the Cardinals identified that as a most desirable characteristic.

What must not be lost however is that unity of the Transcendentals that is needed for an effective witness to Christ who is Truth, and Beauty, and Goodness together.  What is Truth without Beauty or Goodness?  A trite and naked syllogism.  What is Beauty without Truth and Goodness?  An effete aestheticism with no rational grounding and no purpose.  What is Goodness without Truth and Beauty?  A bureaucratic state handing out rations, with virtue and dignity found in neither recipient nor giver.  It is a desire to improve conditions without improving people.  As Pope Francis put it, the Church would become a “pitiful NGO [Non-Governmental Organization].” (A bright indicator of the Pope’s strong belief in the Divine and unique mission of the Church).

Here is precisely where Francis has generated some misgivings.  He has a very casual and informal approach to both his office and to worship.  Informality can be a gift, a sign of high courtesy, making those around you feel welcome and at home, and preparing them to receive your message.  Francis’ interactions with the faithful have made this evident, and his magnetism has proven stunning.  Last Sunday I could not even get into the square for the Angelus; official records put the crowds at over 300,000.  There is a problem however when that informality and personality is injected into one’s office and particularly into the liturgy.  The Office of the Papacy endures and has endured, true humility recognizes that union with the past and cares for it with great solicitude.  Francis’ quote above, while directed to journalists, is also applicable to the liturgy.  The liturgy must be an effacement of self, particularly for the man who stands at the altar in the person of Christ.  The priest’s personality must be subordinated to the communication of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty which can and must characterize every liturgical celebration for it to bear real fruit in the Church.

Too many have equated these misgivings with desires for “bling and lace.”  This is to mischaracterize such issues completely.  There are many who are convinced—with good reason—that in order to safeguard Catholic culture, identity, and orthodoxy, we must have orthopraxis.  They are two sides of the same coin, as our Eastern Catholic brethren know so well.  Those small things, those gestures, those vestments, those postures are irreducibly critical for the creation and maintenance of a Catholic society and ethos.  We are an incarnational people, and we are a traditional people; the recipients of a vast inheritance in culture and civilization.  One should not blithely accept Fr. Congar’s exceptionally damaging dichotomy between “Tradition” and “traditions” that has been drummed into our heads.  For it is those despised “traditions” which held, protected, and undergirded the “Tradition” through the centuries.

To give an example, in the sole remaining record of a sermon by St. Peter Martyr, O.P. (one of the greatest preachers of the Middle Ages), he took an unexpected subject.  He chose to meditate on the externals of the religious life, its costumes and ceremonies.  One ought not to scorn these, he said, for they were the humble stones which held together the massive edifice of the Church.  Without them its walls would crumble.  St. Francis too was aware of this, and omitted nothing which would add to the splendor of the Divine Liturgy.  Indeed St. Francis reserves his harshest words not for those who oppress the poor or corrupt the environment, but for those who refuse to take proper care of the Eucharist and the paraments that surround Its worship.

“Now let us begin to do good, since up to now we have done little or nothing.”  These were some of St. Francis’ last words and they apply to us today.  The world will recognize a Church that cares for the marginalized, and promotes their dignity.  It will recognize a Church that preserves the beauty and culture of centuries because it represents the best of what it means to be human.  It will also recognize one that ceaselessly proclaims the truth about God, the world, and the human person.  We must never break apart that sacred triad.  We must never set the poor against the liturgy, or doctrine against social justice.  The Catholic Church is the custodian of the riches of human civilization for the world, in her art, literature, theology, philosophy, liturgy, architecture, her intellectual work.  These are the inheritance of the poor, the only inheritance they have ever had.  The irony is this: it is the richest inheritance of all.  We must not squander it in their name.

Editor’s note: The photo above of Pope Francis was take during his installation Mass Tuesday.


  • Donald S. Prudlo

    Donald S. Prudlo is Chair and Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa. His specialty is saints and sainthood in the Christian tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).

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