(This is a very Catholic post. My apologies if it makes zero sense to anyone else.)
The time between Benedict's resignation and Pope Francis's election was a time of much fear and trembling for me, as I suppose it was for every Catholic. Who will it be? Someone "good," a real spiritual father, a wise leader? Or someone who, while not teaching heresy, wounds the Church through neglect or scandal? We have been spoiled in the past century ... we are accustomed to very holy Popes, whereas at different times in history there have been some real rotters. But even in this century, I don't think anyone who's been paying attention could say every Pope was perfect or made the right decisions all of the time.
When the news articles and stories came pouring in about Pope Francis, about his simplicity, his warmth, his wise words, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. He seems like a good one. We're in the clear.
But I can see now that maybe that was premature.
I'm not afraid that Francis isn't going to be a great pope. I'm pretty sure he is. But it's a little scary all the same. Are transitions from one papacy to another always this difficult? This is only my second (like most Catholics I know), and I didn't notice a huge upheaval when Benedict was elected. But then I was at Christendom and everyone there loooooved him.
Yet even then, there was a lot of speculation and a lot of assumptions which turned out to be false. Both Benedict's admirers and his enemies called him "God's Rottweiler," the Grand Inquisitor, and so forth. They expected him to be bringing the smackdown. Those who knew him well told us he was gentle, patient, scholarly, and so forth, but all anyone could see was that he was known to be very conservative. So the conservatives and traditionalists (aka everyone I knew) threw parties, and the liberals (so I heard) were wailing and gnashing their teeth.
But what happened? We got a kind, patient, gentle Holy Father, one with a professorial bent. He wrote three encyclicals, two on love and one on hope and zero on smackdowns. He worked on unifying the Eastern Churches (and made enormous progress) and the SSPX (which is still being stubborn) and the Anglicans (which I think has been mostly a success too). He allowed broader use of the Latin Mass, which of course had made that wing of the Church love him forever. But he just wasn't as harsh as was suspected. No excommunications. No anathemas. And I think, for the most part, that that was a good thing.
Everyone already thinks they know what Pope Francis is going to be like and what he's going to do. They have tried both the "liberal" hat and the "conservative" hat on him -- which was very amusing, reading articles saying the exact opposite things about the same guy in the same paper on the same day -- and found that neither fit. So they shoved on the liberal hat and now we're supposed to assume he's a liberal, I guess? Except the real liberals are still annoyed because he's already said he believes in church teaching on this, that, and the other unpopular thing.
Keep in mind that I have said in the past, "If it's possible for there to be such a thing as a liberal orthodox Catholic, that would be me." And I think to some extent that's Pope Francis, too. His sympathies are with the poor, he's already mentioned the environment, and he isn't much into small-t traditions. But I don't think we should for a second assume that that tells us everything about what he will do.
What scares me, though, is not what he'll do. It's what other people will do. I've been reading the comments on Rorate Coeli (a rather traditional blog), which I don't recommend doing right now. There is a lot of shrieking and moaning and gnashing of teeth because we now have a "liberal pope." The articles that site is posting are ridiculous, like a quote by the cardinal who sat next to Bergoglio in the conclave and is reported to be friendly with him, implying that the liturgy needs renewal. And everyone leaps on that shrieking, "The Pope is going to redo the whole Mass yet again!" No. He is not. At least, not so far as I know. Can't you at least let him tell you himself what he would like to do?
My favorite comment all day has been this: "Rodrigo Borgia himself would be a better candidate. At least Alexandrer VI didn't mess with the liturgy!" (For those of you who don't know, Alexander VI was a libertine with lots of illegitimate children whom he made nobles and cardinals. Commonly considered one of the worst Popes of all time.)
Traditionalists are assuming their Latin Mass will be ripped away from them. Some are advising joining the SSPX and others the Eastern rites. (Eastern Catholics are saying, "Please don't. We are not an asylum for disaffected Westerners.") One person commented that he had already stopped attending Mass over this.
I think that's terrible. How can you let your fears of what the Pope might do come between you and God, present for you in the Eucharist? If you are afraid, don't flee from him, flee to him!
But it gets worse. There's this ... individual ... on the internet who goes by the name "Maria D*vine Mercy" (hope that asterisk keeps her adherents away) and claims to be receiving private revelations from Jesus. Of course there are dozens of these on the internet, plus like six antipopes, so I don't usually lose sleep, but unfortunately she got lucky. She claimed Benedict would be driven out of office in a huge scandal. Of course that isn't what happened, but it's close enough and now her followers--she has at least 17,000--are crowing about it. Worse still, her next prophecy is that the next pope will really be an antipope:
"The false prophet will now take over the Seat in Rome. . . . They will bring God’s children under the rule of the little horn, who will sit in pompous splendour in the Seat of Peter. . . . Seated in the Chair of Peter, this imposter will shout aloud and proudly proclaim his solution to unite all churches as one. Hailed as a modern innovator, he will be applauded by the secular world because he will condone sin. He will bring in new laws, which will, not only contradict the Teachings of the Catholic Church, but which will go against all Christian laws."
Read why this is not true here. Short answer being that we have a guarantee from Christ that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church founded on the rock of Peter. But you can see what this would do to people. There are some people who really believe Francis is an antipope and that it is their duty to disobey him. It doesn't even matter what he says or does. This "prophetess" has told them to expect an antipope, so they are out. A schism.
It breaks my heart. Just breaks it.
Maybe we need to go back to the words of yet another Pope, John Paul II. His most famous quote: "Do not be afraid." How can we not be afraid, with so much uncertain? The traditionalists afraid for their liturgy, the neoconservatives afraid of the gay agenda, the liberals afraid of corruption in the Curia, and pretty much everyone (myself included) terrified that we haven't seen the last of the sex abuse scandals and desperate to see the Church cleansed of all those monsters. We're so, so scared.
But we have to take courage, for Christ has overcome the world already. He promised to be with us always, even to the end of time. First, with the Eucharist, where we have his real presence. And second, in the papacy, where we get actual guidance about the right way to go. Why be Catholic? Because God is here. That is the only answer there has ever been.
I see it like a sailboat, turning first this way and then that way to catch the wind. Those of us on board are shrieking that we are seasick, that we can't figure out where this boat is going to, that we are perishing. But what we don't see is that Christ is holding the tiller himself. He turns it a bit to the right, a bit to the left, just a touch, just the right amount. He knows where he's taking us. We don't have to know all this. We just have to sit tight, hold on, and try to have a little faith.