Today marks the second anniversary of the election of Pope Francis as bishop of Rome. They have been, without question, the two most hope-filled years in a lifetime of study and service of the Church. Most people, including most Catholics, have rejoiced in Pope Francis’ style, simplicity, and dedication to reforming the Roman Curia.
It made for a great 35th birthday present, very slightly anticipated!
Sadly, this is not a consensus feeling among the faithful, perhaps particularly among Anglophones in Rome and those in positions of authority in the Roman Curia. A couple weeks ago, on the anniversary of the first papal resignation in six centuries, this pithy post showed up in my newsfeed:
..Two year’s ago today, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation.
Thus beginning the craziest two years of our lives.
Papa Bennie, we miss you. …
I respect Pope Benedict, perhaps even more so because of his strength of character, as witnessed by the resignation itself. His ecclesiology and personality were both strong enough not to buy into the false mythology of a papacy that is more monarchy than episcopacy, or that requires clinging to power rather than absenting oneself from service when no longer able to serve well.
We all find resonance with different leaders, whether bosses or politicians, bishops or popes. It is natural that some people will like one more than the other, but I have a hard time understanding those who claim to be “confused” by Pope Francis, or who think that the last two years have been difficult for the Church.
A recent conversation with friends revealed, of course, those not satisfied with Pope Francis: On one side, the traditionalists who were given the keys to the kingdom under Benedict are now back to being treated as a minority in the Church – which is only fair, as they are, but I can commiserate with the feeling. On the other, genuinely liberal Catholics tend to be unhappy with the Holy Father’s language on women, not sure whether referring to (lay and religious) women theologians as “strawberries on the cake” is meant to indicate that they are mere decoration, or something more appreciative.
Neither side is confused: they know clearly what they do not like. Whether I agree with either side, they know where they stand and I respect that. It is the commentators claiming “confusion” who are not to be trusted. There is nothing confusing at all about a gospel message of mercy and humble service.
Nevertheless, for the broad swath in between liberals and traditionalists, the last two years have been like fresh air after decades of sitting on a Roman bus, stifling because the old-school Italians refuse to let the windows open lest we get hit by moving air and therefore damage our livers. Somehow. (What is the ecclesiological equivalent of a colpo d’aria?)
If the Good Pope opened the windows of the Church at Vatican II to let it air out a bit, it seems much of the trajectory of the last decades has been, if not to outright close them again, to pile up so many screens and curtains that the effect is nearly the same. Francis has opened it again to let the light and fresh air in. Sure, the dust gets blown about that way, but blame it on those who let the dust gather, rather than the one who starts the spring cleaning!
To be fair, if not concise, the analogy would extend to Benedict having attempted the same, only to discover that he did not have the strength. (Though, after years of investing in multiple layers of curtain lace, you ought not be surprised at the surfeit of suffocating material you then have to remove to get at the ‘filth’ hiding in the darkness provided thereby. But I digress.)
I have little doubt that Pope Benedict will be a Doctor of the Church someday, and in addition to his massive corpus of theological writings, his act of spiritual humility and demonstration of truly sound ecclesiology by resigning as bishop of Rome will be the reason it happens.
I have lived through two of the greatest papacies in recent centuries, but if there has been a truly good pope in my lifetime, it is Francis. Two years is nowhere near enough, may he live for twenty more, sound of mind and body, and bring to closure the reforms started fifty years ago. It is perhaps our best hope for unity in the Church, which in turn is the best hope for an effective witness to the Good News.