Five (More) Lessons from Francis

While all of the publicity has gone to Francis’ gentle and entirely helpful remarks about homosexuality in the clergy, which MSW nails in a few sentences today, a full read of John Allen’s excellent summary of his comments reveals some other gems worthy of note:

1. “John XXIII was the figure of a country priest who loves all of his faithful and knows how to take care of them. He was a great bishop, and also a great nuncio. When he was in Turkey, he was responsible for so many false baptisms in order to save Jews ... he was courageous.” Here we get a stunning reminder of what the pope might mean by “creating a mess” in the Church. I am guessing sacramental theologians do not have an account of the theology behind “false baptisms,” and that the use of the Church’s primary sacrament as a social screen to protect the lives of the vulnerable would make some nervous (to say the least). But here we see John XXIII’s saintliness displayed in his willingness to lie and to use the Church’s sacraments as tools of deception!

2. “I'll tell you something about the Charismatic Movement ... at the end of the '70s and in the '80s, I wasn't a big fan. I used to say they confused the holy liturgy with a school of samba. I was converted when I got to know them better and saw the good they do. In this moment of the life of the church, the movements are necessary.” Two insights packed into the same quote. First, notice the pope’s willingness to change his mind by becoming acquainted with practices that at first he sees as questionable. This is not a blithe acceptance of everything, but rather a humility that refuses to stop at initial impressions. Second, it suggests a liturgical flexibility that does not dismiss the importance of “reverence” and holiness and tradition, but rather refuses to make them ultimate. There are limits to liturgical flexibility (or else we would cease to be Catholic), but they have significant elasticity, and one should look at the fruits.

3. “There are saints in the Roman Curia, among the cardinals, priests, religious, sisters and laity. They work hard, and also do things that are often hidden. I know some who concern themselves with feeding the poor or who give up their free time to work in a parish. As always, the ones who aren't saints make the most noise ... a single tree falling makes a sound, but a whole forest growing doesn't.” I'm totally stealing that tree/forest image. It is very hard in a media-saturated culture where we all have the ability to toot (tweet? blog?) our own horn to go about growing silently and slowly like a tree. Of course, here is Francis giving a big press conference! But the point he is making here is plainly one about the importance of persistent, daily practice of the works of mercy “in secret.” It is very easy to imagine that one is doing “important work,” and so cannot be bother by the quiet, little acts. Or one is not quiet about them. The good ones work hard and are diligent in the works of mercy.

4. “I could be close to the people, greet them, embrace them, without armored cars. During the entire time, there wasn't a single incident. I realize there's always a risk of a crazy person, but having a bishop behind bulletproof glass is crazy, too. Between the two, I prefer the first kind of craziness.” Our preoccupation with luxury goods is being challenged by Francis, but probably even more piercing is his challenge to our excessive preoccupation with personal security, the drive behind our society’s flight to gated communities, SUV’s, and the like. Surveys and experiments constantly show that people are much less vulnerable to crime and accident than they imagine. It is not that we should not use common sense. Putting a seat belt on, paying attention to your surroundings, these makes sense. But common sense means that we don’t have such a high anxiety about security (guns? Zimmerman?) that we let these anxieties result in bad, manifestly un-Christian choices. Almost always, these choices are counterwitnesses to the social virtue of solidarity. We become crazy by trying to protect ourselves against craziness. Frankly, one of the greatest problems with confronting endemic poverty in our country is our construction of so many barriers against encountering it, on the off-chance that we will be hurt. If our cities were more successfully mixed-income, they not only would be solvent, but they would likely be a lot safer and better educated, too.

5. “I love Benedict XVI. He's a humble man of God and a man of prayer. When he resigned, it was a great example. … [John Paul II] was great. Putting both together [John XXIII and John Paul II] is a message to the church, that both were extremely good.” And so perhaps everyone rightly swooning over Francis might follow his example and cease villainizing his predecessors! Please!

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David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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