Two popes compared

Two popes compared

Pope Benedict was — is — a teacher of great depth. I love reading his books, and his homilies. Reading Ratzinger is hard work, but always rewarding.

Pope Francis has a very different style. A very distinctive style. Reading Lumen fidei, it’s easy to distinguish Francis’ pen from Benedict’s. Consider, for example, section 57. I suspect Benedict wrote the first two paragraphs, while the third paragraph was written by Francis. The styles and content are contrasting:

57. Nor does the light of faith make us forget the sufferings of this world. How many men and women of faith have found mediators of light in those who suffer! So it was with Saint Francis of Assisi and the leper, or with Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her poor. They understood the mystery at work in them. In drawing near to the suffering, they were certainly not able to eliminate all their pain or to explain every evil. Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light. In Christ, God himself wishes to share this path with us and to offer us his gaze so that we might see the light within it. Christ is the one who, having endured suffering, is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Heb 12:2)

Suffering reminds us that faith’s service to the common good is always one of hope — a hope which looks ever ahead in the knowledge that only from God, from the future which comes from the risen Jesus, can our society find solid and lasting foundations. In this sense faith is linked to hope, for even if our dwelling place here below is wasting away, we have an eternal dwelling place which God has already prepared in Christ, in his body. (cf. 2 Cor 4:16-5:5) The dynamic of faith, hope and charity (cf. 1 Th 1:3; 1 Cor 13:13) thus leads us to embrace the concerns of all men and women on our journey towards that city “whose architect and builder is God,” (Heb 11:10) for “hope does not disappoint.” (Rom 5:5)

In union with faith and charity, hope propels us towards a sure future, set against a different horizon with regard to the illusory enticements of the idols of this world yet granting new momentum and strength to our daily lives. Let us refuse to be robbed of hope, or to allow our hope to be dimmed by facile answers and solutions which block our progress, “fragmenting” time and changing it into space. Time is always much greater than space. Space hardens processes, whereas time propels towards the future and encourages us to go forward in hope.

Speaking personally, I don’t think Francis’ writing is as elegant nor as compelling as Benedict’s. But boy can he preach! I’ve said before that John Paul II was the television pope, Benedict was the Internet pope, and Francis is the Twitter pope.

Francis excels at memorable turns of phrase which are ideally suited to Twitter. But of course their natural home is in the preached word. Francis not only keeps his listeners’ attention, but he also makes points which listeners will recall and (hopefully) interiorise well after he has finished speaking.

Observe this address to seminarians and novices, which I think resonates very deeply:


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.



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





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.

Lessons from the abdication

This article was originally published in the Hamilton Spectator.

Pope Benedict’s decision to resign the papacy shocked the world, and raises some interesting points not only about the papacy, but also about the lives and mission of ordinary Christians.

In the first place, Benedict’s action separates the person of the pope from the office of the pope. It clarifies a popular misconception about papal infallibility.

Seventy years ago, Evelyn Waugh fabricated a scene which is still credible today. He imagined an interview between a credulous and spiritually indifferent man who wished to become Catholic, and a more serious-minded priest:

‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said “It’s going to rain,” would that be bound to happen?’ the priest asked.

‘Oh, yes, Father.’

‘But supposing it didn’t?’

He thought a moment and said, ‘I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’

The Pope is not, of course, an infallible judge of rain clouds. In fact, papal pronouncements are only considered infallible when a pope speaks ‘ex-cathedra’ — from his chair — on questions of Catholic faith and morals. In the last 200 years, popes have exercised this authority only twice.

Waugh’s joke is on the gullible fool who in the name of religion justifies the plainly false.

But the joke’s on us — and by us, I mean all Christians, Catholic and non-Catholics alike — if non-believers really do perceive Christianity to be fantastic nonsense, flying in the face of reason.

Throughout his papacy, Benedict railed against this secular account of irrational belief:

From the beginning, Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the Logos, as the religion according to reason.

We Christians must be very careful to remain faithful to this fundamental line: to live a faith that comes from the Logos — from creative reason, and that because of this, is also open to all that is truly rational.

Benedict’s final action as pope reinforces this teaching. By resigning from the papal chair, he has contextualised papal infallibility, and the papal office. Any reasonable person recognises that it is logically impossible for him to utter an infallible statement on Tuesday, which contradicts the infallible statement the new pope pronounced on Monday. But it’s also legally impossible, because having resigned from office, Benedict will not speak ex-cathedra.

Archbishop Rowan Williams, the former spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, suggests that Benedict’s resignation reminds the world that “the pope is not like a sort of God-king who goes on to the very end.”

The ministry of service that the bishop of Rome exercises is just that, a ministry of service and it’s therefore reasonable to ask if there is a moment when somebody else should take that baton in hand.

Therein lies a lesson for us all on personal vocation or calling.

Not every man who is pope will retire as Benedict has done. But he prayed about it — probably over the course of years — and discerned God’s will. Retirement is part of God’s plan for this man, at this time, in this case.

The point is, personal vocations are always personal. This is true of all of us.

We should not pronounce on other people’s decisions, nor excessively compare our lives to theirs. Each one of us has a unique vocation from God.

In the words of John Henry Newman:

God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.

I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught.

If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him. In perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.

He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me.

Still, He knows what He is about.

Pin It on Pinterest