The name which Pope Francis has endowed upon himself tells us much about his spiritual direction
It was in a moment laced with supreme, theatrical irony, that former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, quoted the famous words of St Francis of Assisi:
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy…”
And we all know how well that turned out.
Now, Francis is back, promoted to pope, the inheritor of an institution built, allegedly on the words of Jesus Christ to Peter: “Upon this rock I will build my church.”
There have been numerous conflicting interpretations in the Biblical exegesis of the infamous phrase. “Peter” is “Petros” in Greek, and means rock or stone. Scholars have long pondered whether Jesus was referring to the person whose birth name was Simon bar Jonah when he asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon is believed to have replied, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” This appears to have inspired Jesus to rename Simon, “Peter”, the “Rock”, and then declare, “Upon this rock I will build my church…” The inherent ambiguity has defied scholastic definition ever since (see Matthew 16: 13-20). That the church, and in particular the Roman Catholic Confession, should be dependent on this verse to choose one human being and his lineage to be given absolute and infallible authority has been a bone of contention since the days of Henry VIII and Martin Luther.
The fact is – and recent horror stories have only added to a historical compendium of corruption and sleaze spreading across previous centuries – the Roman Catholic Church has in no way fashioned itself in the humble, modest, impecunious image of its creator. A more un-Christ-like construct you’d be hard-pressed to find. The new pope, however, has begun to take matters in hand if, perhaps, in a more subtle way than his Master who raged through the Temple in Jerusalem, overturning the money-lenders’ tables and excoriating the priests for allowing religion to become a commercial enterprise. Pope Francis has taken a more sophisticated approach towards reforming the financial motives and methods of today’s money-maker, what is now, officially, his Vatican Bank (official title being The Institute for Works of Religion), as we shall see below.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the 76-year-old Archbishop of Buenos Aires, changed his alias to become Pope Francis and a first too, from Latin America. He is also the first Jesuit and the first non-European for 1000 years. He is staunchly conservative, theologically traditionalist, an active anti-gay crusader (from a doctrinal point of view) and carries some mucky baggage from the 1970s after accusations were made in 2005, charging that he had co-operated too closely with the brutal junta and even conspired in the rounding up of Jesuits. Nothing has been proved or disproved; all of it is denied. Most notable is the fact that, to date, there has been no sign of repentance or a verbalised, conscious break with his supposed relationship with the junta. To be fair, though, there appears to be evidence that he did much too to save up to a 1000 people from the Argentinean death choppers.
Why is Bergoglio the first to take a new name since Albert in 1101? Does he wish to signify a break from tradition? He is reputed to be kind, mild-mannered, modest and even amusing. We’ll see. His humble manner and frugal life-style are a marked break from the opulent excesses of his predecessors, certainly, but doctrinally he cannot be expected to change an iota of Roman Catholic dogma: he may just show a different methodology of enforcing it.
Perhaps, then, he really does mean to reference the saintly Francis of Assisi (1181/82 – 1226) and attempt to bring healing, hope, pardon and principle to the rotten state of the Vatican City. Pope Francis’ namesake certainly had a reputation insofar as he considered poverty noble and the contemporary version, too, has avoided life’s little luxuries. He is known to have travelled by bus to keep his costs down and persuaded hundreds of Argentineans not to accompany him to Rome, but rather to re-sell their tickets and give the money to the poor.
Or, maybe, he wishes to refer us back to Saint Francis-Xavier, a priest in the 16th century and one of the first Jesuits, an order of which he is a member. Xavier, in fact, founded the Society of Jesus (aka Company of Jesus) whose reputation down the centuries has been, shall we say, rather chequered.
Whatever else Pope Francis might or might not be, he is old and unlikely to last any great amount of time as pontiff. Is he a stop-gap-pope until a better model can be moulded?
Well he has taken on the cabal of cardinals. He has begun to tackle accusations of money-laundering, drug cartel-financing and property-gazumping within the Vatican Bank’s management. So far so good. But, the question is whether he will be able to crush the serpent-head of paedophilia and criminal cover-ups. He seems to be making gestures in those directions. And it is unclear whether he will consider females as having a meaningful, contributory role outside of nunneries. He won’t be allowing abortion or women priests, so no female cardinals, then.
The last one who even looked like he was doing anything lasted just 35 days: Pope John Paul I died in highly suspicious circumstances precisely because he wanted to clean up (rather than clean out) the Vatican Bank and tackle other areas of conniving and corruption. ‘The Mysterious Death of Pope John Paul I’ by Gregory Christiano and In God’s Name by David Yallop present conclusions that imply he was murdered. On the other hand, John Cornwell in A Thief In The Night, after deep and meticulous research, draws an opposite conclusion that murder is a baseless conspiracy theory.
His successor, Pope John Paul II was all charisma and lefty-talk until he got the mitre tailored to fit and then ran a ruthlessly traditionalist dogmatic church with his faithful guard dog (“God’s Rottweiler”), a certain Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, by his side. Nothing by way of cleansing or reform was ever carried out. So, a kind pope, a charismatic pope and a crumbling pope. What have we now: a crafty pope?
Certainly a clever pope. No, he does not condone homosexuality or same-sex marriage, but in a now infamous impromptu press conference on board his Airbus A340 (“Shepherd One”) he astonished the hacks and the watching world by saying: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Pope Emeritus must have vomited up his breakfast.
And he is restructuring in the efficient manager of a newly installed CEO, albeit without the stratospheric bonus and champagne life-style. He has appointed a new Board, a group of eight cardinals (“the C8”) to review the church’s organisation, and brought in McKinsey and KPMG (“God’s consultants” – a marked difference from “God’s Banker”, Roberto Calvi, found hanging under Blackfriars bridge, London) to look at the church’s administrative machinery and thoroughly overhaul the Vatican Bank.
Nevertheless, and while the euphoria lasts and bums start re-filling Catholic Church pews – even in secular Britain – there are critical observers who maintain it is all incense-smoke and mirrors. In the meantime: Pope Francis rocks.
Image from: http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2014/01/29/268361194/on-a-roman-street-graffiti-celebrates-superpope
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