The Papacy: The Person Versus The Office

What draws the secular media to the Vatican … (for now) is the man who is able to translate these truths into action, and to proclaim our doctrine with personal conviction. 

 

 It is one of those few moments forever emblazoned on my mind.  It was in the early 90s when five of us young Jesuit novices went to the Gesù Church in Detroit to profess solemn vows. The Father Provincial preached that hot Saturday afternoon. As he was addressing the congregation from the raised pulpit, a side door, directly underneath him, surprisingly and swiftly opened.  A little girl, face beaming with total joy and delight, fell to the floor instantly as she met the turned heads and stares of a few hundred strangers.  Behind the door she had just opened, stood someone—presumably her mother—with bucket and mop in hand—as we were obviously intruding upon this family’s Saturday work of coming to clean the church for Sunday Mass.

Yet, without missing a beat, my Provincial smiled, and leaned down to her while gently gesturing her to come closer, saying, “Come in, Sweetie! You’re the only reason we do all of this!”  At that moment, I fell a bit more in love with the Jesuits. Here was my Superior, a man respected for his gravitas, instinctually showing us that our liturgy, and our very lives, were for the sake of God’s people.  We were not there to be congratulated for our vows; we were there to vow our lives for service to others. The liturgy was not there to bring us out of this world, but to unite all of us in the one true sacrifice of Christ.

What I witnessed at that moment, unrehearsed, captured well what today’s best known Jesuit seems to be teaching the entire world.  Pope Francis is in love with God’s people.  He is following Jesus, walking through the grain fields of propriety and ritual, knowing how to shuck what is superfluous, and savor what is substantial.  Francis is not afraid to show us who he is as a man, and as a priest. Yet, at another level, he is about “more of the same,” without differing from any preceding pontiff.  At the level of his own personal style, Francis feels free to formulate Christian doctrine as he sees fit. At the level of his role as universal teacher, he is holding tightly onto the foundations of the Faith.

Toward the end his epic, Paradise Lost, John Milton (d. 1674) depicts Adam and Eve’s first attempt at reconciliation since their rebellion against Goodness.  After bickering, finger-pointing, and outright hatred, we finally hear Adam say to Eve that they should:

But rise, let us no more contend, nor blame
Each other, blam’d enough elsewhere, but strive
In offices of Love, how we may light’n
Each other’s burden in our share of woe {X.958-61}.

This is an intriguing and illuminative verse.  As her husband, Adam tells his wife that they both should strive to serve one another through the “offices of Love,” a sentiment most married folks can understand.  Marriage—like Holy Orders, or like each of our baptisms—is an office.

The natural affection Adam may have had for the woman, Eve, and vice-versa, was dissipated with their disobedience.  Nonetheless, he still had the obligation to lighten his wife’s burdens, and to share in her woes.  At such times of strained communion, we may not like the other. But, we must still strive to love him or her. We may not respect other people, but we are still called to honor them.  In each of our Christian lives, we may not want to be loving or merciful, but the office of baptism—the fact that we have been made adopted children of the Father—provides grace sufficient for us to transcend any limited feelings, while drawing from something, Someone, much greater than ourselves.  As a man, I am useless at the altar or in the confessional, but the office of priesthood allows me to offer my hands, and my words, in imitation of Christ’s consecration and his absolution.

This is something the world will never wholly understand.  So, let’s face it: Who has really been on the recent covers of Rolling Stone, GQ, and Time Magazine the past few months?  Thinking Catholics realize that it is Francis, the man, and not the office of Pope, who is being used to sell these magazines. What draws the secular media to the Vatican is not the unchanging doctrine, and the timeless truths, that Pope Francis is there to uphold.  What the world finds alluring (for now) is the man who is able to translate these truths into action, and to proclaim our doctrine with personal conviction.  Once they catch on that he will not, cannot, change essential Church teaching, their cameras will point elsewhere, and their front covers will find someone else to highlight. In editorial pages across the world, the secularists will eventually admit that they feel let down because this was not the “Messiah of Modification” that they thought he was going to be!

But is this not true with every Holy Father?  Each man brings some unique tone to the office, and each is remembered for some major event, or overarching theme. Anyone with an historical perspective realizes that the past three popes have really given the Church, and the world, lasting examples of a true shepherd.  Yet, each lived out his office in very different ways.

Blessed John Paul II will always be known for elevating us. After a decade of internecine wrangling, and ugly politicking, Wojtyła came on the scene and immediately reminded us that we were to become saints. He taught generations of young people, especially, that they were surrounded by holiness, and were called to sanctity.  A fresh wind began to blow through the windows opened by John XXIII. When John Paul II first appeared to the world in 1978, his first words captured this new beginning, echoing the newness that Gabriel brought to Our Lady: “Believe.  Do not be afraid to believe.”  We then witnessed for more than a quarter century of fearlessness, his own personal living out such trust, all the way to the painful end he experienced.  In turn, we responded: seminaries slowly filled, new convents began to sprout up, and young people started to realize that even their bodies had a theology built into them. From our hearing his initial, “Non abbiate paura—Do not be afraid,” there rightfully came forward our response: “Santo subito—Make him a saint quickly!”

Pope Emeritus Benedict has deepened that same vision, and gave to the basic theological insights of the post-conciliar Church more rigor and sophistication. Compared to his predecessor’s presence, Ratzinger’s shy smile paled. But no one dared doubt his ability to handle well the onus of his office. Here was a true theologian, one who was able to philosophize because he had first prayed. This was a man who might not find the popular slogan too easily, but someone who would take the elevating themes of John Paul II and deepen them.  How brilliant Benedict was to capture the past two generations of ecclesial struggle in viewing it as a battle for the “hermeneutic of continuity.”  How humble Benedict was to admit his own frailties, and to step aside. When his physical body was no longer able to fulfill the obligations of Holy Father to the worldwide Church, the Pope instinctively knew that the Holy Spirit was asking this of him, and he was not so proud as to refuse what was asked. John Paul II, on the other hand, lived out the office of Holy Father until his death, as he sensed in prayer that this was what he was asked to do by the same Holy Spirit. Benedict is now showing the world how he has been called to live out the rest of his life (as Pope Emeritus) by spending his days in prayer and contemplation.

If John Paul II elevated the Church’s message, and Benedict deepened it, Francis, no doubt, is out to broaden it. He is spreading a net far and wide, and in so doing, Francis is setting the themes and lasting images of his papacy.

He will be remembered for his washing the feet of the poor and marginalized. He will be talked about for his impromptu phone calls, and his ease in reaching out to the crowds which press in around him.  He is also amassing pages and pages of his quotable comments: reminding clerics that shepherds “should be living with the smell of their sheep;” that we should thank God for the World Wide Web, but fight against becoming “internet trolls;” or of the seminary’s danger in turning out “little monsters.”  But I wonder if his pontificate won’t be summed up by that one line, very early on: “Who am I to judge?”  Christ instituted the Petrine office, not as the Church’s judge, but as her loving pastor.  He gave Peter a unique power to bind and loose sins; but he never made Peter the judge of anyone’s soul. Christ himself refused to judge, so why should we take it upon ourselves?

We live in an age insistent on the instantaneous, and in love with the lavish.  The media has found a friend in Pope Francis, and for that we should rejoice. What this wider discourse will reveal one day, however, is that the papacy is not ultimately about the person whom we name as Pope for a decade or two.  It is ultimately about the unchanging office that this man upholds forever. Here is a Pope who is using his office to break out of the pulpit, and wave in all the children, and all the mothers with mops in their hands. Here is a man who has abandoned most everything to follow Christ, and who is not afraid to show us how simply he loves us.

Viva il Papa!

 

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avatar About Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, S.J. is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.

Comments

  1. avatar Hugh E. GalvinIII says:

    Dear Fr. Meconi: A great enlightening and comprehensive article; We have had a tremendous
    grace in having such having such intelligent and holy Popes such Pope PaulII,
    Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. God Bless you..Hugh

  2. avatar Hugh E. GalvinIII says:

    Fr. Meconi: Great and enlightening article. We have received tremendous grace and having such
    intelligent and holy Popes such as Paul VI, Benedict, and Francis. God Bless You.
    Sincerely yours,
    Hugh E. Galvin III

  3. avatar Glenna says:

    Oh, Fr, this is what I’ve been wanting to tell people for the last 6 months but couldn’t find the words.Thank you so much for articulating it so well!

  4. avatar GRV Climaco says:

    Of course, our Lord judged: the scribes, the Pharisees, the adulterous woman, telling them,
    “Reform! Sin no more!” All priests judge in confession, withholding absolution if required.

  5. avatar Pat Aronson says:

    Thank you for pointing out the particular charisms of each of our recent Holy Fathers. Each was chosen at just the right time, which is the way of the Holy Spirit. May God open our eyes and hearts to the blessing we have in Pope Francis. His demeanor and actions charm the secular media, but they have missed the depth of his commitment to the authentic message of Jesus.

  6. avatar Michael Baker says:

    The Holy Father walks a narrow path of offering hope to those outside the family but not promising what can not be delivered. Faith is the guide for all concerned

  7. avatar P Thomas McGuire says:

    I hope Francis, Bishop of Rome, will also be remembered for the Apostolic Exhortation, Joy of the Gospel. He has pointed the way for Catholics to become missionary disciples and transform everything through the joy of the Gospel, the best gift humans can receive.

  8. avatar Tom M says:

    Very well said. You captured me, too, at the moment the church door opened and the little girl made her entrance. From that point on… Very well said and thank you.

    Thank you for the quality of this fine publication. And especially thanks for including the remembrance of your readers at Mass. That means something, too.

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