The phrase “we are expecting great things” has varying definitions according to who says it and who hears it. That the secular and non-Catholic world expected great things from Pope Francis means something rather different from the Catholic world expecting the same. Part of this is what we should describe as the law of diminishing papal nastiness. Pope John Paul II was roundly condemned by the mainstream media when he was alive, but once dead and succeeded by Pope Benedict XVI, these same journalists recalled and sighed alas for the time of a gentler, kinder pope. Then Pope Francis was chosen, and he was thought and to a large extent is still thought to be a reforming Jesuit who would, the media seemed to imply in their speculative fantasies, transform the Church into an especially lenient and liberal kindergarten. Then he spoke of sin quite a lot, then emphasized that life began at conception and that euthanasia was unacceptable, then refused to affirm same-sex marriage. The love affair continues but it’s not quite as gushing as it was.
Actually Pope Francis has pointed the way to what the future of the Catholic Church will be like in all sorts of ways, and pursued a via media, a middle road, that has not always pleased left and right wings of the Church, but delighted the massive middle. In June 2013, he made it abundantly clear that the present and future Church was not a cafeteria where we chose what we wanted and rejected what didn’t appeal. The food came as one, unified, holistic meal.
This is salvation: to live in the consolation of the Holy Spirit, not the consolation of the spirit of this world. No, that is not salvation, that is sin. Salvation is moving forward and opening our hearts so they can receive the Holy Spirit’s consolation, which is salvation. This is non-negotiable, you can’t take a bit from here and a bit from there? We cannot pick and mix, no? A bit of the Holy Spirit, a bit of the spirit of this world…no! It’s one thing or the other.
Referring to the Gospel of Matthew and the Beatitudes, he said:
They are the new commandments. But if we do not have a heart open to the Holy Spirit, they will seem silly. “Just look, being poor, being meek, being merciful will hardly lead us to success.” If we do not have an open heart and if we have not experienced the consolation of the Holy Spirit, which is salvation, we cannot understand this. This is the law for those who have been saved and have opened their hearts to salvation. This is the law of the free, with the freedom of the Holy Spirit. Today we can now ask the Lord for the grace to follow him, but with this freedom. Because if we want to follow him with our human freedom alone, in the end we become hypocrites like the Pharisees and Sadducees, those who quarreled with him. This is hypocrisy: not allowing the Spirit to change our hearts with His salvation.
There was a forlorn hope from the left of the Church that a Jesuit and a non-European would make it easier for dissenters to do exactly what they like best, but they had misjudged the man and misunderstood his Church. I’m fully aware that there are conservatives who are treating this papacy as a period of pain that has to be tolerated, but that’s a blindness as bad as the socialist fantasies of the left. He’s the pope, the vehicle for divine truth, a man given to us to lead the Church in a particularly challenging time. Tradition is given to us not as a dark room in which to lock ourselves away so as to hide from the world, but as a light mansion from which to launch campaigns of attack on the enemy. Tradition, heritage, the deposit of faith liberate rather than incarcerate and the Catholic faith is no more tied to a particular style of worship than it is to a specific language or a particular culture. The faith is too big, too grand for that. It started in Jerusalem, it expanded to Rome, it then soaked the entire world. I have visited Bethlehem many times but what matters is that Bethlehem has visited me. This is surely the essence of Catholicism; we live in different countries, we speak difference tongues, we have different worship forms—but we all worship the same God and embrace the same truth.
I don’t think any of us predicted that the Pope would be as he is, even if some of the alleged experts are claiming the gift of prophecy! We knew relatively little about Francis, we assumed it would be business as usual, we thought the work of Benedict would be continued by his successor. To an extent it is, in that the Gospel is being spread with great gusto and authenticity; but of course there is a different approach and a different idiom and change is never easy for all sorts of reasons. Christianity is not, however, a religion of complacency. If we want comfort and stability we can join a variety of clubs and societies; the Church is there not to make us feel cozy, but to make us feel loved. God didn’t guarantee a good life, but a perfect eternity, and the Church doesn’t guarantee us a comfort zone, but a conduit of absolute truth that leads us back to our creator.
Pope Francis has shaken up the curia, began extensive reforms of the Vatican financial system, removed incompetent officials, appointed new and younger men to drag certain Church institutions into the 21st century, reminded the world that Catholics are the best friends of the poor and marginalized and thrown a blanket of charisma and approachability over the papacy. I am well aware that some of our more conservative brothers and sisters are surprised and even appalled by this, but I beg you to consider rather than react and to listen rather than hear. Truth be told there are statements made and actions taken by Pope Francis that I find difficult and even jarring, but he is not merely the Pope, he is my Pope. Yours too.
When we look back at the history of the papacy it is often those of whom we expected less or little who deliver more and much. A God of surprises has given us a pope of the same. This papacy is still being unpacked and unwrapped and its true effect and influence will not be genuinely known for some time. There are some who do not love the Church who feel enabled by Francis, but I predict that they are in for a shock. It is the real Catholics who will be empowered by this Pope, the direct descendant of St. Peter, given the keys of the kingdom by Jesus Christ. Don’t take my word for it, take the word of God. In the end it’s the only word that really matters.