Popes, apples and oranges

Popes, apples and oranges

In a recent gathering, Bishop Javier Echevarría, the prelate of Opus Dei, reminded his audience that the Catholic Church has only one pope, not two. He insisted that Catholics stop comparing Francis with Benedict.

“The pontificate of Benedict XVI has passed and now we have Francis. We should fight hard to get rid of any temptation to make comparisons! We should be Catholics who are on the move, who pray a lot for Pope Francis, many times each day.”

It’s good advice I think, especially in view of the relentless comparisons in the media, which create an impression that Francis is implicitly criticising his predecessor. Here’s an example from The New York Times:

[Francis] wore simple black shoes and an ordinary wristwatch with a thick black band to his first Mass as pontiff…. In an ancient institution where style often translates into substance, Francis, in his first 24 hours as pope, has dramatically shifted the tone of the papacy. Whereas Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus, was a theologian who favored red loafers, ermine-lined cloaks and erudite homilies, reviving papal fashions from centuries past, Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, appeared Thursday to be sending a message of radical humility.

Reading that, you might think that Pope Francis’ choice of black shoes is a deliberate rejection of Benedict’s red shoes. But I don’t remember anyone suggesting eight years ago that Pope Benedict’s choice of red shoes was a deliberate rejection of John Paul’s brown shoes.

I’m not denying that the choice of shoe colour says something about a papacy. Benedict wore red shoes because it is a centuries-old tradition, and as pope, Benedict restored or revived many traditions which were diminished or abandoned in recent decades. It spoke, I think, to an attempt to rebuild Catholic identity in a secular world. Francis wears black shoes because they’re brand new and in a spirit of poverty he will not throw them out. We can reasonably expect that spirit of poverty to impact his papacy and the Church.

But it’s drawing a much longer bow to suggest that Francis’ love of poverty is a repudiation of Benedict’s love of tradition. That’s like comparing apples and oranges, which is what journalists do, but which Catholics should resist.

Fr Julian Large, provost of the Brompton Oratory and a former journalist, wrote an excellent letter on this subject.

Soon after the election of Pope Francis, the Oratory telephone exchange was crackling with calls from the press. All of the journalists who telephoned seemed to ask the same question: “How will the new pope compare with the old one?”

How could one possibly answer? To say it was refreshing to have a pope from the new world and to suggest that we could surely expect a different style of pontificate might look, in print, like a vulgar criticism of Pope Benedict, whose deep humility, selflessness and penetrating insight will be esteemed by all decent men and women for centuries to come.

Most of us probably hope that a new pontificate will be marked by continuity with Pope Benedict’s project to re-establish a sense of Catholic identity among the faithful and to restore the mystery that makes us active participants at the most profound level in the Church’s liturgy. To say so much to the press, however, would sound presumptuous, as if we were telling the new Supreme Pontiff how to do his job.

Fr Julian suggests the media might fabricate “a virtual papacy,” in the same way it created “a virtual Council” fifty years ago. That’s not proposing a media conspiracy. It’s a comment on the wrong impressions and false expectations that excessive commentary can produce. I recommend reading his letter in full.

Journalists will naturally view Pope Francis as a Pope Benedict’s replacement. But as Catholics, we should view Pope Francis as St Peter’s successor. These understandings are quite different. For that reason alone, we should not allow the media to determine our attitude on the pope.

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