Pope of the Twitterverse

Pope of the Twitterverse

Early in Benedict’s pontificate, at least one commentator described him as “Pope of the Internet age.” This was in contrast to John Paul II, who was “Pope of the television age.”

The rationale was intuitive. JPII was charismatic, telegenic, and had an aptitude for dramatic gesture. Ideal for TV. BXVI, in contrast, had none of his predecessor’s visual flair, but he is a talented writer. Ideal for the written word which in 2005 dominated the Internet.

Of course, the Internet has changed a lot in the 8 years since. So much so, that Pope Francis, who has an entirely different style again, could also be characterised as “Pope of the Internet age,” or maybe more specifically, “Pope of the Twitterverse.”

Sandro Magister shows why:

[The oratory typical of Pope Francis] is a concise, simple, conversational oratory, tethered to words or images of immediate communicative impact.

For example:

– the image of “God spray,” used by Pope Francis on April 18 to warn against the idea of an impersonal God “that is a bit everywhere but one does not know what it may be”;

– or the image of “babysitter Church,” used on April 17 to stigmatize a Church that only “takes care of children to put them to sleep,” instead of acting as a mother with her children;

– or the formula “satellite Christians,” used on April 22 to brand those Christians who allow their conduct to be dictated by “common sense” and by “worldly prudence,” instead of by Jesus.

Stefania Falasca, an old friend of Bergoglio – who telephoned her on the evening of his election – asked him after one morning Mass at the Domus Sanctae Marthae: “Father, but how do these expressions come to you?”

“A simple smile was his reply.” In Falasca’s judgment, the use of such expressions on the part of the pope “in literary terms is called ‘pastiche,’ which is precisely the juxtaposition of words of different levels or different registers with expressive effect. The ‘pastiche’ style is today a typical feature of communication on the web and of postmodern language. This is therefore a matter of linguistic associations unprecedented in the history of the Petrine magisterium.”

Later in the article, Magister considers the media’s silence on Pope Francis’ more provocative statements. He describes it as a gentle honeymoon. I’m inclined to view it more ominously. A pope who is censured by the world is at least more easily heard than a pope who is censored.

Comparing popes

Comparing popes

Further to my apples and oranges post, there’s comparing popes and there’s comparing popes.

There’s no shortage of social media memes doing the rounds right now, which compare popes through a hermeneutic of continuity. This sort of comparison, I think, is faithful to the Catholic view that each pope is successor to St Peter — as opposed to each pope being their predecessor’s replacement.

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And then there are memes which don’t really provide any lesson, but which are funny enough that people repost them again and again.

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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.

Spiritual communion and “sacramental fasting”

Spiritual communion and “sacramental fasting”

An interesting diversion has occurred in the comment thread below my post on Christian Unity.

In a discussion on the sacramental communion of non-Catholics, the issue of spiritual communion was raised. St Alphonsus Liguori’s traditional formula was quoted:

Lord, since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart.

My personal favourite is a Piarist formula, taught to St Josemaría Escrivá when he was a child, and since popularised by Opus Dei:

I wish my Lord to receive you with the purity, humility and devotion with which your most holy mother received you; with the spirit and fervour of the saints.

Spiritual communion is an old Catholic devotion which, like “the visit to the Blessed Sacrament,” has receded in recent times.

(The late Frank Devine was once waiting in the foyer of a large Catholic school when he indicated to the secretary that he’d “pay a visit.” That’s traditional Catholic speak for spending a few minutes in front of the tabernacle and making a spiritual communion. But as he made for the chapel, the secretary called out to him. “Mr Devine, you’re heading towards to the chapel. The toilets are the other way!”)

In his final encyclical, Pope John Paul II urged Catholics to reclaim the practice of spiritual communions:

It is good to cultivate in our hearts a constant desire for the sacrament of the Eucharist. This was the origin of the practice of “spiritual communion,” which has happily been established in the Church for centuries and recommended by saints who were masters of the spiritual life. St Teresa of Jesus wrote: “When you do not receive communion and you do not attend Mass, you can make a spiritual communion, which is a most beneficial practice; by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you.”

Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 34.

St Thomas Aquinas and St Alphonsus Liguori – like St Teresa, Doctors of the Church – agreed that spiritual communion can be as great as sacramental communion. In both instances, if Jesus is welcomed with love, and given due attention, abundant grace flows.

Clearly, then, it’s advisable to make frequent spiritual communions. There is no limit to spiritual communions – we can make as many as we like, unlike sacramental communion (no more than twice in one day).

But what about spiritual communion as an unnecessary substitute for sacramental communion? What if you’re at Mass, you have no mortal sins you need to confess, but when it comes time for communion, you have no desire to join the queue? What if the idea of sacramental communion is nothing short of repugnant? Not because God is repugnant – you still came to Mass, after all – but because scruples or acedia or a sincere and profound sense of humility compels you to maintain a reverent distance from God. What then?

A case could be made for a sort of “holy abstinence” from the Eucharist. Insofar as it increases one’s reverence and piety, abstaining is a good thing, and making a spiritual communion instead is advisable.

But I’m not convinced. I imagine that our worthy reception of the Eucharist is a source of great joy to the Lord. He wants communion with us not only because it’s good for us, but because he loves us and wants to be close to us. So we receive communion not only for our sake, but for his sake too. It pleases him.

If I’ve got nothing against a mate, but I just don’t want to see him, and so I then refuse to see him, despite his objections … How is that not an act of selfishness?

Therefore, if we truly love Jesus, we will put aside our own feelings and dispositions when approaching the sacrament. If there is no objective reason to abstain, we should always make a sacramental communion.

Diplomatic Honour for Melbourne theologian

Diplomatic Honour for Melbourne theologian

Last Thursday Professor Tracey Rowland was awarded the the Officers Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. It was conferred by the Polish Ambassador to Australia on behalf of the President of Poland.

The decoration is the highest distinction the Polish government gives to foreign nationals. It is a diplomatic order awarded for enhancing Poland’s standing abroad and contributing to cooperation between Poland and other countries. As such, it is typically awarded to diplomats. As the Ambassador remarked, “It is not often that theologians are recognised by this distinction.”

Prof Rowland is one of the Anglosphere’s foremost experts on the theology of Pope Benedict, and shares with him an interest in theological anthropology and the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. There’s no better introduction to these subjects, I think, than Rowland’s Ratzinger’s Faith. (Her Guide for the Perplexed is a more demanding title for advanced students of theology.)

This Polish award demonstrates that Prof Rowland is also no slouch when it comes to the scholarship of Pope John Paul II. I notice that earlier this year, Rowland presented a paper in Poland on the Civilization of Love in the thought of John Paul II.

Speeches and photos from the conferral are available online. They’re worth a look.