When it comes to Pope Francis, what’s the Big Picture? It’s a question a friendly acquaintance put to me, roughly, this past week. I was surprised by my inability to articulate an answer that was satisfactory to either of us. Francis’s weekend in Cyprus and Greece has helped to bring the matter into focus, so, here’s another stab at an answer.
There is an important sense in which Pope Francis is and always has been an open book.
He’d already been at it four-and-a-half years, though, when Fr. Antonio Spadaro SJ – one of the churchmen who appeared to have the Holy Father’s ear during the early years especially, and has continued to enjoy a good measure of confidence – admitted that Pope Francis didn’t have a plan.
“I do not [want to reform the Church],” Fr. Spadaro quoted Pope Francis as telling him. “I just want to place Christ more and more at the center of the Church. It will be He who makes the reforms.”
I have little interest in gainsaying that, to be perfectly frank, and less in measuring the success of his non-program program.
“We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised,” Pope Francis told Fr. Spadaro in 2013, “but rather on starting long-run historical processes.” Francis went on to say that “start[ing] processes” is better and more fruitful work than “occupy[ing] spaces,” because, “God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history.”
“This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics,” Pope Francis continued, “and it requires patience, waiting.”
It also means having no plan, hence nothing against which to measure success and precious little with which to gauge the reasonability of whatever actions a leader takes. Whatever else it does, it creates conditions in which a leader may dismiss any and all criticism of his conduct in office as personal attack, sour grapes, typical institutional reactionism and griping and sniping, or a combination of those and just about any other unflattering and unsavory sorts of grousing.
History will judge Francis, and God will, too. One hopes that both will judge him kindly. As I told an amazing group of young students this past week, history is always happening, right now. That’s what the pope’s weekend in Cyprus and Greece reminded me, and that’s what helped bring this business into focus.
The clip of an Orthodox priest heckling Pope Francis with calls of “Heretic!” outside the residence of the Orthodox Archbishop of Athens, where Francis was going to deliver remarks, was especially helpful.
How and why?
Writing in these pages, Adam A.J. DeVille noted that one elderly cleric heckling the pope was a far cry from the days of street protests, including burnings-in-effigy of the “Great Crusader” from Rome, which preceded Pope St. John Paul II’s historic visit in 2001.
“In 2001,” DeVille recalled, “matters were so fraught that it was an open question as to whether the pope would even be able to pray the Lord’s Prayer in private with the primate of the Greek Orthodox Church.”
By contrast in 2021, “[Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens] praised the pope in fulsome terms and Greek Orthodox commentators also extolled Catholic efforts of the last two decades towards rapprochement.”
Pope Francis has made some grand gestures, like 2019’s gift of relics of St. Peter to the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew. In a letter to Bartholomew, Francis said that the gift was “intended to be a confirmation of the journey that our Churches have made in drawing closer to one another: a journey at times demanding and difficult, yet one accompanied by evident signs of God’s grace.”
In that same letter, Pope Francis said he sensed that the idea of the gift came to him “from the Holy Spirit, who in so many ways prompts Christians to regain that full communion for which our Lord Jesus Christ prayed on the eve of his glorious Passion.”
Pope Francis secured a meeting with the Russian Patriarch, Kirill, in 2016, which saw a joint declaration issued. It wasn’t anything earth-shattering in terms of its contents, but that it happened at all was – and is – a very big deal.
Francis, in other words, has gone where the Spirit moved him and done what the Spirit moved him to do. He’s also achieved some pretty significant milestones in ecumenical politics.
The Church that Pope Francis governs has a whole lot of work to do before her house is in order. Frequently, he seems to have taken the truism, “History is always happening, right now!” as the practical equivalent of “History is always going to happen anyway,” and shrugged his shoulders, and got on with his life.
That’s made for powerful imagery, and some high drama, but it has left him – and us – arguably ill-positioned to exploit the opportunities created in the moment. Others will have to clean up the mess he’s made, but that appears to be part of the design – such as it is – as well. Sometimes the answer to the question about the Big Picture and what it is, is that there isn’t one.
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