Francis has gotten largely good press, though the honeymoon may be starting to wane
ROME – A stir has been made, in the media by the critical remark that Pope Francis reserved for the IOR, the Institute for Works of Religion, the controversial Vatican “bank,” in the homily for his morning Mass at the Domus Sanctae Marthae on Wednesday, April 24:
"When the Church wants to throw its weight around and sets up organizations, and sets up offices and becomes a bit bureaucratic, the Church loses its principal substance and runs the risk of turning itself into an NGO. And the Church is not an NGO. It is a love story. . . But there are those guys at the IOR. . . Excuse me, eh?. . . Everything is necessary, the offices are necessary. . . okay, fine! But they are necessary up to a certain point: as an aid to this love story. But when the organization takes the top spot, love steps down and the Church, poor thing, becomes an NGO. And this is not the way.”
Pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio delivers these morning homilies completely off-the-cuff. And the passage reproduced above is the literal transcription provided a few hours afterward by Vatican Radio.
But that same day, in reporting on the same homily in another way, "L'Osservatore Romano" left out the aside: “But there are those guys at the IOR. . . Excuse me, eh?”
This disparity between the radio and the newspaper of the Holy See is an indication of the uncertainty that still reigns at the Vatican on what kind of media treatment to give the weekday homilies of the pope, the ones that he delivers at the 7 a.m. Mass, in the chapel of the residence where he is living.
To these Masses are admitted a selection of the public, different each morning. And among those present on April 24 a fair number were employees of the IOR.
These homilies of the pope are recorded in their entirety. But they do not undergo the procedure for his official discourses, when it comes to the parts improvised off-the-cuff.
That is, they are not transcribed from the audio recording, cleaned up in thought and expression, then submitted to the pope and finally made public in the approved text.
The complete texts of the weekday homilies of pope Bergoglio remain secret. Only two partial summaries of it are provided, by Vatican Radio and by "L'Osservatore Romano," redacted independently of one another and therefore with a greater or lesser extent of word-for-word citations.
It is not known whether this practice – aimed both at safeguarding the pope's freedom of speech and at defending it from the risks of improvisation – will be maintained or modified.
The fact is that what becomes known of these semipublic homilies is by now an important part of the oratory typical of Pope Francis.
It is a concise, simple, conversational oratory, tethered to words or images of immediate communicative impact.
– 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.”
In an April 23 editorial in the newspaper of the Italian episcopal conference, "Avvenire," Falasca compared the oratory of Pope Francis to the "sermo humilis" theorized by St. Augustine.
Pope Bergoglio is also introducing this style into his official homilies and discourses. For example, in the homily for the Chrism Mass of Holy Thursday, in St. Peter's Basilica, he made a very striking exhortation to the pastors of the Church, bishops and priests, to take on “the odor of the sheep.”
Another typical feature of his preaching is interacting with the crowd, getting it to respond in chorus. He did so for the first time and repeatedly at the “Regina Coeli" of Sunday, April 21, for example when he said: “Thank you very much for the greeting, but you should also greet Jesus. Yell 'Jesus' loud!" And the cry of "Jesus" in fact went up from St. Peter's Square.
The popularity of Pope Francis is due to a large extent this style of preaching and to the easy, widespread success of the concepts on which he insists the most – mercy, forgiveness, the poor, the “peripheries” – seen reflected in his actions and in his own person.
It is a popularity that acts as a screen for the other more inconvenient things that he does not neglect to say – for example, his frequent references to the devil – and that if said by others would unleash criticism, while for him they are forgiven.
In effect, the media have so far covered up with indulgent silence not only the references of the current pope to the devil, but also a whole series of other pronouncements on points of doctrine as controversial as they are essential.
On April 12, for example, speaking to the pontifical biblical commission, Pope Francis reiterated that “the interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures cannot be solely an individual scholarly effort, but must always be compared with, inserted within, and authenticated by the living tradition of the Church.” And therefore “this entails the insufficiency of any interpretation that is subjective or simply limited to an analysis incapable of accommodating within itself that overarching sense which over the course of the centuries has constituted the tradition of the whole people of God.”
This salvo of the pope against the forms of exegesis prevalent also in the Catholic camp went practically unnoticed, amid the general silence of the media.
On April 19, in his morning homily, he lashed out against the “great ideologists” who want to interpret Jesus in a purely human vein. He called them “intellectuals without talent, ethicists without goodness. And of beauty we will not speak, because they do not understand anything.”
In this case as well, silence.
On April 22, in another morning homily, he said forcefully that Jesus is “the only gate” for entering into the Kingdom of God and “all the other paths are deceptive, they are not true, they are false.”
With this he therefore reiterated that indispensable truth of the Catholic faith which recognizes in Jesus Christ the only savior of all. But when in August of 2000 John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger published precisely on this the declaration “Dominus Iesus," they were bitterly contested from inside and outside of the Church. While now that Pope Francis has said the same thing, everybody quiet.
On April 23, the feast of St. George, in the homily of the Mass with the cardinals in the Pauline Chapel, he said that “the Christian identity is a belonging to the Church, because to find Jesus outside of the Church is not possible.”
And this time as well, silence. And yet the thesis according to which “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus," which he has reaffirmed, is almost always a herald of polemics. . .
This benevolence of the media toward Pope Francis is one of the features that characterize the beginning of this pontificate.
The gentleness with which he is able to speak even the most uncomfortable truths facilitates this benevolence. But it is easy to predict that sooner or later it will cool down and give way to a reappearance of criticism.
The first warning came after pope Bergoglio, on April 15, confirmed the strict approach of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith in dealing with the case of the sisters of the United States represented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
The protests that were immediately raised by these sisters and by the “liberal” currents of Catholicism, not only American, resounded as the beginning of the breaking of a spell.