Sunday, March 17, 2013

A time of trepidation

(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.


Tiffany said...


Excellent and fascinating post. I think a lot of it is due to the fact that this is the first big change in the papacy we've seen in a generation. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were very similar in my mind, and I think in the minds of many others. Francis is signalling that he wants to freshen things up a bit (not by changing teachings, of course, other things) and that's scary to many people. The real extreme traditional people baffle me a bit; as long as they have access to the Extraordinary Form, they're good, right? What does it matter to them if the pope does indeed change the Ordinary Form since they dislike it as it is right now anyway? Plus he hasn't even said that he's going to do this, like you mention.

And as soon as someone tells me that they've stopped going to Mass I know that the problem isn't whatever it is that they're claiming. How can staying away from the Eucharist EVER be the right thing to do? I remember reading once about a very prominent and outspoken proponent of abortion, artificial birth control and female priests being asked about this very issue. If the Church made these changes would she go to Mass? "Of course not," she said. "People don't *need* to go to Mass and be with a cleric to be close to God, how silly!!" VERY, very telling, in my opinion. And if your views are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum yet the result is the same (no Mass) shouldn't that tell you something?

Enbrethiliel said...


Blogger ate my first long comment! >=( What follows is a reconstruction.

First of all, I really like the line "We are not an asylum for disaffected Westerners!" I want to steal it the next time a foreigner who hates his country implies that the Philippines, as his new home, exists to make him happy. (Now if I could only get the Immigration office to see things my way . . .)

Schism is also devastating to me, which is why I'd never consider leaving the Church for any reason. But as you know from my comments on your previous post, Sheila, I understand on some level why some people might find this new papacy a yoke too difficult to bear. They don't want to wait and see what good Pope Francis might do because the possibility that he might do awful things outweighs that. It's like Schrodinger's cat: they don't want to open the box just in case the cat is dead, even if they may never learn the happy news that the cat is alive. Trusting is hard.

While I haven't been reading any of the negative reactions at all (except secondhand), I am reminded of a scene in a semi-historical Andrew Greeley novel. (Believe it or not!) In that scene, some Catholics in Chicago are reacting badly to the publication of Humanae Vitae. By "badly," I do not mean in an ugly, nasty manner, but with sadness and a sense of betrayal. One of them literally cries as she asks the priest character why Pope Paul VI would do something so hurtful to the Church. But all those characters remained Catholic despite the actions of the Vatican--which is one of Father Greeley's favourite themes. I have no reason to doubt that this scene fictionalised some very real reactions from faithful Catholics of the time. And whether they were mistaken to react that way is not the point. How can we argue against pain? Only time can take us through this.

Speaking of time, I really want to know what people will be saying about this election in twenty years. And by "people," I include myself! =P

Sheila said...

You're very right, Enbrethiliel. We are impatient and want the gift of hindsight NOW. So people make assumptions rather than wait and see.

I used to be so opposed to birth control I automatically judged anyone who used it. Now that I have kids myself, I understand why people use it so much. I do believe that the teaching is GOOD for us, and I follow it, but I guess I understand now why people were so shaken up over it -- and are still.

I think Humanae Vitae was really in many ways the point of divergence. Were we going to be a part of modern society, going down the same general path like we were doing in the fifties, being respected, having a large following ... or were we going to separate ourselves and do something different? We chose to follow a different path, and fifty years down the road I think you can see the fruits of each path. But that must have been impossible to see at the time. I'm sure many wondered, "Why lose so many Catholics over a little pill?" And yet now we find ourselves drawing line after line that separates us from "the world." It's become an effort to convince the world that we are even legitimate.

It's a hard time to be Catholic, maybe as hard as it's been since the time of the Catacombs. We just have to pray for a lot of grace, I guess!

Anonymous said...

I am not Catholic (as you know), but I spent my formative years in a county that was the first Catholic Colony in the US (St Mary's County, MD). I have probably mentioned to you that it was an area that still so Catholic in the 1970s that the Baptist Church met in the basement of the Knights of Columbus Hall (and I thought every school child everywhere enjoyed fish sticks on Friday). All this to say...that from my don't seem like a "liberal" Catholic, you seem like a traditional one.

Best wishes on this journey.

Sheila said...

The thing is, "liberal Catholic" is usually code for, "doesn't actually believe what the Church teaches." And I do believe every word of it. But the conservatives take me for a liberal because I believe in the environment, social justice, etc. and I am not terribly particular about the Latin Mass. I feel like the bat in the fable sometimes -- neither a bird nor a beast, so both reject me.

Pope Francis appears to be upsetting both the "birds" and the "beasts" too, so I get the sense he's my sort.

Enbrethiliel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Enbrethiliel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila, I'd like to apologise for the comment I left earlier. I've already deleted it, as you can see, and I'm deeply sorry if you already had a chance to read it. It is my burden to bear and I should really stop inflicting it on everyone else--especially at the expense of real joy.

Sheila said...

I did not read it, E. I've been cutting down on my computer use lately. I kind of regret not having gotten to read it, though, because even when you think you're pushing limits, you say such wise things. But I trust your judgment, and if you didn't want me to read it, I'm glad I didn't.

Wishing you lots of real joy this Easter.

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