In the summer, Pope Francis’ six-day South America trip generated controversy early on when the president of Bolivia presented him with a hammer-and-sickle crucifix.
The story brought waves of confusion. First, there were the eagerly shared memes of the pope’s disapproving look when he received it. Next was a wave of pictures taken a moment later of the pope’s smile when receiving it. Some said Francis hated it and left it behind. Other said he loved it and kept it with him.
The pope gave the definitive answer on the plane ride home, calling it not a crucifix but “protest art” and describing how Jesuit superior general Pedro Arrupe had been critical of the Marxist interpretation of the Gospel in response to just such works of art.
Then he said something telling. He said that he left other tokens of appreciation behind. “If I take them to the Vatican, they will end up in a museum where nobody will see them. … However, I am taking the sculpture of Christ with me.”
In other words, faced with the two options: “leave the protest art behind where it will be displayed” or “put the art where no one will see it,” Pope Francis chose to deep-six it.
But I still hear comments from Catholics who are convinced that the pope cherished the crucifix, showing his true colors.
Last came the Francis fall freak-out
And so it was that, when Pope Francis visited America, some Catholics treated his every move with a deep suspicion. Why didn’t he say “Jesus” in the White House? Was that a real blessing outside the U.S. Capitol? Did he mean to meet with Kim Davis or was he ambushed? Didn’t he kind of soft-pedal abortion to Congress?
And so it was suspicion that followed him to the Family Synod in October, when many Catholics were convinced that the Holy Father was colluding with cardinals who wanted to soften Jesus Christ’s teaching on divorce and remarriage.
George Weigel has done invaluable work spelling out what really happened at synod 2015: A reboot of a process begun more than a year earlier, re-rooting the Vatican’s approach to the family in scripture.
But the damage has been done.
Pope Francis demonstrates all the good that you get from a pope who has an emphatic, plainspoken style. He also shows the confusion it can cause. Some say, “What more does he have to do before you admit Pope Francis is trouble?” But you can look at the man who keeps a Way of the Cross and a Rosary in his pocket and also say, “What more does he have to do before you admit he is devout and faithful?”
I predict that Pope Francis’ pontificate will be seen in retrospect as a time when the Church let down her defenses and had a real encounter with the world. But I predict we will have more explaining to do first.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.