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Pope Francis: Challenging and Humbling the Faithful



David Mills - published on 05/19/15

When politics and faith clash, we learn what motivates us

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You don’t see the “coming Catholic civil war” articles any more, perhaps because the belief that Pope Francis will change everything has finally begun to die out among traditionalist Catholics (who feared it was true) and dissenting Catholics (who hoped it was true). I don’t see nearly as many conservative attacks on Francis as I did, outside the predictably dyspeptic writers and websites, some of whom seem happy only when they can find reason to feel unhappy.

I haven’t, for example, seen anything from a major Catholic figure as bad as Pat Buchanan’s hit job from last October. In one of his syndicated columns, he distorted what Francis had said, well beyond the point his comments could be excused as a misreading, and triumphantly smacked down the statements Francis had not made. I wrote about it here. The attack lacked not only the deference to the papal voice required of Catholics — to head off the easy reaction, deference does not always mean agreement — but the respect for what a man actually said required of anyone engaging someone else. Many of the comments were of the same sort.

As I say, I don’t see as many conservative attacks as I did, though I still see a good number. Presumably all those who so opposed Francis haven’t decided they now like him, but maybe some of them have decided he’s not as bad as they thought. Or else, and this would be bad, their hostility to Francis has become settled and habitual and therefore something they don’t need to express so often. They’re just going on with their lives in a state of alienation from the Holy Father. Maybe criticizing Francis has become rote and pro forma but not something that excites them as it once did.

Which is not to say the attacks have stopped. The Synod on the family has people fretting and will really do so when the final meeting approaches. The recent treaty with the Palestinian State has people fretting — people who didn’t say boo when Benedict’s Vatican first used the term or when St. John Paul II’s Vatican reached an agreement with the PLO.

The encyclical on the environment has people fretting. Many fear the pope will disagree with them and/or undermine the Republican position. Several people have written pre-emptive strikes on Francis’ authority to speak on such matters. Some of those have parsed papal authority in the same way dissenters did after Pope Paul VI condemned contraception in Humanae Vitae: if it’s not overtly infallible, you can reject it, which isn’t the Catholic teaching.

On the other hand, and I bring this up mainly because it’s so funny, the angriest Catholic critic can’t match some of the fundamentalist attacks on Francis. Besides being amusing, they put our internal conflicts in context.

Like one I stumbled upon with the headline “Pope Francis Invokes Lucifer During Easter Mass 2013.” It comes from the snarling junkyard dog wing of anti-Catholic fundamentalism. The site said “The Catholic Church, as well as Pope Francis, makes singing a love song to the Devil part of their worship service. Don’t believe us? Click on the video and see it for yourself.”

Who could resist? The video shows the Exultet from St. Peter’s Easter Vigil in 2012 (Benedict’s) and in 2013 (Francis’s). It helpfully provides the text and the site’s translation: “Flammas eius — Flaming Lucifer / lúcifer matutínus invéniat — Lucifer finds mankind / Ille, inquam, lúcifer, qui nescit occásum: Christus Fílius tuus — I say, O Lucifer who will never be defeated, CHRIST IS YOUR SON!” (the all caps and exclamation mark theirs).

The video ends with the words “Lucifer Worship” in the middle of the screen over a shot of the nave of St. Peter’s as the people sing “Amen.” A nice Leni Riefenstahl touch.

So you’ve seen for yourself. For such Bible-believing Christians, the Latinists at this site seem to have missed the use of “morning star” as a title for Christ in 2 Peter 1 and Revelation 2 and 22. The translation we use at Mass says: “May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star: the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son.”

So these things are relative. I’m a great admirer of Francis’s and have been moved and challenged by his words. What of those who aren’t admirers and feel it necessary to attack the pope in public, if only the public of an email list? Writing on Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s popular weblog, someone who called himself “the Masked Chicken” gave this advice: “When St. John Vianney was asked by some priests why their churches were losing members, he asked them, point blank, ‘Have you fasted for them? Have you prayed all night? Have you done penances?’”

If, said Mr. Chicken, “for every criticism of the Pope you wished to make online, you were to pay for the privilege by first performing an act of real charity for someone in secret (for you cannot be certain that the comment you planned on making is such), then we would have a holier Church and a lot more gentle comments.”

“I have not earned the privilege to speak about what I think the Pope should or should not do,” he wrote. Learning to say the right thing at the right time “is a gift that comes only after you have learned to die to self and the best start for that is humility, detachment, and charity.”

This is good advice for nearly all of us, since almost everyone has someone he’d really like to take down in public, someone who has gotten under his skin. It’s especially good advice in speaking of the pope, if he has gotten under your skin, the man who is, despite all the careful limitations of his authority the Church makes, still the Holy Father, the successor of Peter, and the vicar of Christ.

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng. 

Pope Benedict XVIPope Francis
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