Pope Francis delivered his annual “State of the Church” address to high officials of the Roman Curia on Monday.
Speaking to the prelates gathered in the Hall of Benedictions in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, Pope Francis offered remarks that ran almost to 4000 words in their official English translation, distributed to accredited journalists under embargo shortly before the greetings of the Christmas season got underway.
Some of the words were stark.
Taking as given that the world and the Church in it are in multifaceted crisis, Pope Francis said: “Those who fail to view a crisis in the light of the Gospel simply perform an autopsy on a cadaver.”
Departing from his prepared remarks, Pope Francis added: “[Such a one] looks on the crisis, only without the hope of the Gospel, without the light of the Gospel.”
Francis went on to note that crises are troubling, not only because “we have forgotten how to see them as the Gospel tells us to,” but primarily “because we have forgotten that the Gospel is the first to put us in crisis.”
Students of classical languages may be tempted to take that as a play on the Greek root of the word, crisis – which means “judgment” – hence as a late answer to the query Pope Francis himself posed early in his pontificate: “Who am I to judge?”
Some of the words were plaintive.
“Allow me to ask expressly of all of you, who join me in the service of the Gospel,” said Pope Francis, “for the Christmas gift of your generous and whole-hearted cooperation in proclaiming the Good News above all to the poor.” Francis went on to say that only those, who welcome the poor, truly know God. “We cannot see God’s face,” he said, “but we can experience it in his turning towards us whenever we show respect for our neighbour, for others who cry out to us in their need.”
One would have a long row to hoe, to make him wrong about any of that.
There is one key place, however, at which Pope Francis offers a brave inversion: “This reflection on crisis,” he says at the top of the sixth numbered section (of ten) in the address, “warns us against judging the Church hastily on the basis of the crises caused by scandals past and present.”
The hard time in which the Church is worldwide embroiled has come before the public in the form of scandal. The bad press of which the Church has been the subject of late, however, is as much the result of the leadership crisis that has been bubbling and gurgling beneath the surface for decades, as it is the cause of tumult. While it might be too much to say simply that Pope Francis got it backwards, it is nevertheless remarkable that he did not really treat the other side of the coin.
Or, did he?
“A crisis,” Pope Francis said early in his address, “is something that affects everyone and everything.” He went on to say that crises “are present everywhere and in every age of history, involving ideologies, politics, the economy, technology, ecology and religion.”
In Section 7, Pope Francis offered an articulation of how not to view a crisis: “I would urge you not to confuse crisis with conflict,” he said. “Crisis generally has a positive outcome, whereas conflict always creates discord and competition, an apparently irreconcilable antagonism that separates others into friends to love and enemies to fight.”
That crisis generally has a positive outcome, is a statement in need of some qualification. Viewed from eternity, it is always true. Then again, the same may be said of conflict. We are not in eternity. We are in time: where both crisis and conflict have lasting consequences, not all of them to the good.
“Conflict,” Pope Francis went on to say, “always tries to find ‘guilty’ parties to scorn and stigmatize, and ‘righteous’ parties to defend, as a means of inducing an (often magical) sense that certain situations have nothing to do with us.” That is the sort of hard, needful thing that Francis excels at saying, though sometimes he says them when it is already late in the day.
“This loss of the sense of our common belonging,” Pope Francis said, “helps to create or consolidate certain elitist attitudes and ‘cliques’ that promote narrow and partial mind-sets that weaken the universality of our mission.” That’s quite right, like it or not, but does not change the fact that Francis has prized personal loyalty above other traits in his lieutenants, nor does it erase that he has not always exercised the best judgment when it comes to which of them he keeps and which he lets go.
He certainly did not put himself out of the running for statement-of-the-year in the “Sun Rises in the East” category with that remark, either, but offered little with it in the way of a plan for governing the Barque of Peter through the stormy seas into which she has sailed while he has been in the captain’s chair.
The not-so-subtle implication that there are no good guys was quite welcome: frankly needful of saying – and hearing – if that is what it was.
One may be forgiven for thinking it a bit rich, though, coming from a man who last year used his bully pulpit to plug a book that presented a narrative of schism – one that favoured “his” side. In any case, the Pope was building to a message that remained somewhere between the lines – and parsing it out while not falling into tea leaf reading will require care.
The pope’s closing remarks were themselves remarkable for their ambivalence: certainly, they were conciliatory – but were they an offer of truce, or a warning that he has saved his biggest broadside for the year to come?
They could be both.
“Every crisis contains a rightful demand for renewal,” Pope Francis had said in Section 8. “If we really desire renewal, though, we must have the courage to be completely open,” he went on to say. “We need to stop seeing the reform of the Church as putting a patch on an old garment, or simply drafting a new Apostolic Constitution.”
The College of Cardinals elected Francis in 2013 and gave him a reform mandate: a new Apostolic Constitution was one of the first promised steps in that effort, and has yet to see promulgation. For years, Church watchers have heard promises of its substantial completion and whispers of its imminent release.
Is Francis throwing in the towel and offering terms, or is he preparing a major salvo?
“Dear brothers and sisters,” Pope Francis said in conclusion of his address, “let us maintain great peace and serenity, in the full awareness that all of us, beginning with myself, are only ‘unworthy servants’ to whom the Lord has shown mercy.”
“I destroy my enemy,” the saying goes, “by making him my friend.” Abraham Lincoln, who led the United States through a ghastly civil war he would have done almost anything to avoid, was supposedly fond of the expression.
“For this reason,” he said, “it would be good for us to stop living in conflict and feel once more that we are journeying together.”
It would be good, indeed.
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