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Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Winds of Change in the Catholic Church, Part II

Source: Michel Cool, Francis: A New World Pope, translated by Regan Kramer, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.

I just finished a short book about the history and philosophy of Pope Francis, and it doesn’t seem so far that he is the dreaded Petrus Romanus predicted by Horn and Putnam (mentioned in previous posts). A new world pope is not quite the same as a New World Order pope. Horn and Putnam have amply demonstrated that there are various groups of transnational elites that would love to see a New World Order be established in which all nations surrender their national sovereignty and submit to the laws and regulations of a master, global government. These cabals have included some celebrated Americans, including both Presidents Bush.

The book by Cool doesn’t sugar coat the challenges and scandals of the previous three decades. They are all mentioned: the pedophilia, the Vatican bank scandal; liberation theology; the mutiny of the bishops; corruption and moral laxity; and the call for a new view of the papacy in which the pope is not a central, all-powerful monarch. Pope Francis is aware of these issues and knows that he has a nest of problems to resolve.

Cool’s book is divided into discreet parts. One simply tells the history of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He was born in 1936, so he is about 77 now. That doesn’t give him a lot of years to make his mark on the church. He may be the first pope to shun the luxuries that come with climbing the ladder of hierarchy. He rode the subway to work in Argentina when he could have had a limousine. He lived in a simple apartment. He did his own cooking. He genuinely cared about the poor of his flock and about the priests who cared for them. Even today he lives in a small apartment in the Vatican rather than the royal quarters of all other popes.

In another section of the book, various prelates describe their impressions of him and delineate their hopes for the future. One noted that in his introductory speech on the balcony, he did not apply the word ‘pope’ or ‘pontiff’ to himself. He called himself the Bishop of Rome. This is actually huge, a sea change for the church. Upon the slippery slope of the previous decades, the notion arose that the pope is not necessarily the Vicar of Christ, the Representative of Christ on earth, revered as virtually infallible, ultra-anointed, and super holy. In spite of Christ’s admonition against calling any man ‘good’ or ‘father,’ the pope has been called Holy Father by all, and he wears special regalia to remind everyone of his exalted status. Pope Francis has so far shunned such ostentation.

It would seem that somewhere, somehow, in the decades since Pius XII, the prelates and bishops felt so constrained and frustrated by the rigidity of the medieval traditions that they could barely contain their ire. Francis seems to recognize that and is willing to proceed with a new collegiality with the bishops and the curia of the church.

In the classic church of the past, children born to single mothers could not be baptized because they were born out of wedlock. Cardinal Bergoglio was incensed at the practice and demanded that those babies be baptized. Another thorny issue not mentioned by Malachi Martin is what to do with divorcees who remarry or mothers who marry divorcees. A Catholic who marries a divorced person may not take Communion. This issue has yet to be resolved, and many priests at various levels hope that the old rules will change.

That issue certainly impacted my family. My father was killed in a plane crash in 1951 when I was six. My mother dated extensively in the years following, looking for a man to match that first love. She dated a wonderful UAL pilot named Vern and later a cool Air Force pilot named Ed. Both were divorced. Just about the time mom was going to cave in and marry Ed in spite of the church, he was sent on a mission and disappeared. Mom never remarried.

And that is not the end of the story because my alcoholic brother could have used the guidance of a great step-father. A step-dad could have advised me in my early dating years. I had no idea what made men tick when I was a young adult. My mother’s retired years were shredded by a horrible co-dependent relationship with my brother who clung to her like a parasite because his body and mind were slowly breaking down due to alcoholism. She had no defense against him. As for me, I entered my adult life with a cloud of doom over my head. I was sure that we were all losers and that nothing good was destined for us. I felt I had no future, and if one presented itself, it would just be ripped away. That sounds like a pity party, but it impacted important decisions that I made and opportunities that I passed over.

My aunt got to age 30 and decided that she wanted kids, so in spite of her deep Catholic devotion, she married a divorced man. She got her three great kids, but suffered the torment of no Communion. No priest in America would marry her, so if I recall correctly, they went to Mexico to be married by a priest. It didn’t crush her faith, but it could have.

The author of two books about the Marian apparitions in Medjugorje was a professing Christian who converted to Catholicism. The issue of the primacy of the Catholic Church was so strong that when the bureaucracy long delayed his request for admittance, he was told he could not sleep with his wife until he was baptized a Catholic and married by a Catholic priest. I wonder how Pope Francis will deal with issues like that. Church officials meant well with Wayne Weibel, but such elitist reckoning is arrogant, misguided nonsense. It gives religion in general a bad name. Will Francis ring in a new era of ecumenicism and acknowledge that there are other genuine Christians in the world?

The trick about change is to know when to stop. Pope Francis has acknowledged the danger of losing faith and definition to where the church becomes an NGO. It’s the fear of the slippery slope. At the bottom is the bland, all-encompassing, everything goes, we’re all OK, there is no evil, no devil, no hell to pay, all religions lead to God, etc. The church could modernize itself out of existence. The ground has already shaken under issues like the Tridentine Latin Mass versus the Mass in English, guitars versus organs. Oh my, Bayside Mary thought that guitars were an instrument of the devil himself. The core of the Mass is the doctrine of Transubstantiation, the Real Presence of Christ in the host initiated by the blessing of a priest. Yet today, the tabernacle is often in another room and the altar is often just a table. Is the magic gone from the sacred rite?

The answer to that question is that we bring the ‘magic’ with us. It’s not in a rite or ritual or dogmatic proclamation, no matter how old or how often repeated. As long as devout Catholics come to their services with believing hearts, devotion, love for their Lord, and godly lives, the magic will always be there. Jesus only asked us to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. He asked us to care for each other as we would care for ourselves and to acknowledge Him and our heavenly Father before men. And that is what unites us all as Christian brethren.

In spite of the ancient prophecy of St. Malachy which places Pope Francis as the last pope (discussed in a recent post), he may not be the last pope at all. He may be the first pope of a new era…not a New World Order, God forbid, but a new understanding and doctrinal orientation for a billion Catholics around the world. As for the prophecy that the city of seven hills will be destroyed, St. Francis saw the church in ruins centuries ago. It’s the devil who loves to terrify us with apocalyptic expectations. A balance of Scripture, love, and understanding will not ruin Rome, but will rebuild the ancient ruins.