As I write I am not long returned from tending our small flock of sheep and its ten lambs. While there was a lovely interlude of warm sunshine. As I walked back in the sky clouded over and now the sky has gone darker still, and there is the rumbling of thunder.
All of which strikes me as rather an apt image of the first few days of Pope Francis’ pontificate, up to today’s liturgical inauguration of his petrine ministry. There has been much basking in the sunshine of a new pope of so many firsts: the South American, the first Jesuit, the first Francis, for example. He is also the first pope I know of to eschew so consciously many of the symbols of his papal office. And we stop now that things are full steam ahead with this new pontificate, the sunshine might be about to fade and the storm clouds edge into our horizons.
When Benedict XVI his abdication I was quite taken aback and wrote a post that was seen by some as charged more than usual with emotion. Among the things said then was:
Surely the wilful misrepresentations of his [Benedict XVI’s] teachings, the arrogant refusal to accept his attempts to reconcile those drifting from the Church and to restore order to the life and liturgy of the Church, the scandalous opprobrium heaped on him for the abuse crisis when he was one of the few who so clearly and consistently stood against it, the bile and venom spat at him – and not just by the world but especially by Catholics: all this is an indictment of God’s people just as much as of the world. …
… let us pray that in the Lenten conclave God will grant us the pope we should desire and not the one we have deserved by our culpable action, or inaction.
And on the election of Pope Francis, when assessing the signs he gave and the reactions to them in this post, I ventured to say that,
Pope Francis might not be the pope I was hoping for, but he seems like the pope we all need.
And still no mention of Vatican II…
So taking stock of Pope Francis’ radical stripping away of symbolism and his relatively minimalist way of celebrating Mass; his advocacy of concern for the poor and simplicity of life for all the Church; his stout defence of Church teaching on the moral issues most in contention today; the continued absence of any explicit mention of Vatican II as part of his rhetoric (except as an aside in a message to the Chief Rabbi of Rome rather than to the Church); and his repeated reference to the Devil and to the fact that not to be for Christ is to be for the Devil – all this makes me wonder if he is the rod of divine punishment for the Church. And this not least for:
- those who have over-valued the trappings and ephemera of liturgy rather than directing their zeal more completely to the proper celebration of what is the Church’s liturgy, its form and structure, its orientation, its essential Christ-centredness as opposed to its minister-centredness (from priest down to extraordinary minister of Holy Communion);
- those who have adopted the rhetoric (exposed in his last papal days by Benedict) of the the virtual Council, a political hermeneutic with power as its focus, rather than hermeneutic of faith in which the Second Vatican Council was intended to be conducted;
- those who have continued to white-ant the moral teachings of the Church, Catholics who deny Church teaching yet profess still to be faithful Catholics;
- those whose primary motivation is in practice to gain the good regard of the world rather than of Christ;
- those whose life and priorities witness more to worldliness than to the purity of the Gospel of the Crucified Christ;
- those who seek to refashion the Church to suit themselves, rather than convert themselves to the message of the Church; and
- those who see the things of God as personal possessions rather than gifts held in trust.
Each one of us is probably covered by at least one of the categories listed.
Most probably we are all going to be discomfited by this pope. He is going to make us all fear, and strike us all where it hurts us most. Already the world is beginning to turn on him as they realise his simple purity in material affairs is matched by an equally simple purity in matters of faith and morals. He has already discomfited his fellow Jesuits. Gird your loins, people of God – Pope Francis might be about to deliver the smaller, purer Church Pope Benedict saw as required over the coming years.
If Pope Francis should prove a rod of punishment, then its strokes will be the discipline of a loving father. Yes, God does punish us in this life, no matter what the recent saccharine gospel might tell you. He punishes us now that we might not have to endure punishment eternally, punishment far worse than anything we could suffer in this world.
Outside my window it is now pouring with heavy rain – large drops obscuring the view, striking the ground hard and soaking it in but a few moments, making for an early twilight.
And still no mention of Vatican II…