It’s considered bad form to respond to negative – or in this case, mixed – reviews of one’s book, and I don’t intend to do that here. But I was struck by a parenthetical remark in a critique of my memoir, From Fire, by Water, which recently appeared in the Tablet. My Catholicism, the reviewer said in implicit reproach, is “much more Benedict’s than Francis’s”. At first, I bristled: as if a Catholic’s spiritual orientation can be reduced to the choice between our two popes!
But then I remembered that I had used variations of the same line in private conversation, especially during my first few months as a newly baptised and confirmed Catholic. Plus, the memoir itself has an entire chapter devoted to Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, which I describe as the one book to which I “owed, and still owe, my soul and my salvation”. The Argentine Pontiff, by contrast, doesn’t make an appearance in my book.
A further admission: Pope Francis’s teaching has never electrified my mind the way his predecessor’s writing and lectures did. I remember attending one of Francis’s general audiences in the summer of 2017, hoping the Vicar of Christ would set off tremors in my mind, only to leave crestfallen. The homily, delivered in Francis’s halting, mumbly manner, concerned the matter of some dispute or other between labour unions and bosses in Italy.
I think Pope Francis would be the first to admit that the life of the Catholic mind isn’t high on his list of priorities. His predecessor was foremost a scholar, while Francis is the pastor par excellence. Francis formulates things roughly, in the moment, lacking the theologian’s precision. That’s the way of the pastor, but add papal infallibility, and widespread misunderstandings about infallibility, to this mix, and you end up with the doctrinal tensions of the past few years.
Francis’s pastoral voice is inspiring, however, and Catholics, especially those inclined to be critical of his pontificate, would be wise to heed it. It comes through loudly in his Ave Maria: The Mystery of a Most Beloved Prayer (Image), a new book of essays and interviews on the subject of Our Lady.
The book affords a rare glimpse into Francis’s interior life and his Marian devotion, which is at once profound, earthy and very much Latin American. Mary, the Pope writes early on, is “this masterpiece of the Father” and the “human face of God’s infinite goodness”. On Mary’s beauty, long a muse to Catholic artists, Francis says: “Because Mary was not the victim of deceit,” as Eve was, “she did not undergo the consequences of it.” He adds: “In the vision of the Church, re-creation is more important than creation. Creation begins with Adam and then Eve … Re-creation begins from Mary, a single woman.”
Re-creation trumps creation – now that’s a reassuring thought in this season of ecclesial troubles and heartache!
Reading these lines, and others like it, I can’t help but think of Cardinal George Pell in his solitary confinement in an Australian prison, the victim of absurd accusations and an unjust process. No doubt the cardinal feels especially close to Mary at this moment, the Mary who, as Francis says, “felt terrible anguish … alone at the moment of the Annunciation and alone at the moment of her Son’s death.”
Pope Francis’s book on the Hail Mary is also invaluable for those interested in Francis’s political thinking, which is in deeper continuity with his recent predecessors’ than his critics and his crude champions would care to admit. A recurring theme is Francis’s disdain for liberal transnationalism and its “Davoisie”, and “the culture that sees things as disposable”. At one point he describes as satanic “the elite that does not know what it means to live among the people”. Elsewhere he describes our age’s malaise as a species of “spiritual orphanhood”, caused by a “narcissistic” individualism that deprives us of “any sense of belonging to a family, to a land, to our God”.
Or again: mothers, and especially the Mother of God, “are the most powerful antidote” to the “individualistic” society, “a society that has lost its heart”. Godless materialism cultivates men and women who “close themselves off”, who “have no need of mother, of father, of a family, of a homeland, of belonging to a people”. Such attitudes, Francis says, are the rotten fruits of the Devil. Which is why “Satan hates our Lady so much.”
The lines had me writing in the margins of my copy of Ave Maria: “A church that is this close to the Blessed Virgin Mary will never succumb to her enemies.”
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post, a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald and author of the memoir From Fire, by Water (Ignatius Press)
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