Revolutionary but Not New

Nothing is new about it, but it is revolutionary. I am referring to the message, and also to the image, of Pope Francis. In the 11 months since his election to succeed the retiring Pope Benedict XVI, he has attracted the attention of the world and excited the imagination of millions upon millions.

This is not new in papal history. Actually, in living memory, in 1939, Pope Pius XII made history when he came to office. He had visited many places. He was young — not yet 60.

Blessed Pope John XXIII made history in 1958 when he was elected. His lovable personality had much to do with it, but so did his actions. In the first days of his papacy, his embracing of Jewish leaders startled many Catholics — and Jews as well. Then, he called the Second Vatican Council!

The last ecumenical council had ended less than a century before; a few souls alive in 1958 remembered it, but Pope John’s announcement stunned the world.

Pope Paul VI made history soon after his election in 1963 by announcing that he would visit the Holy Land, including parts of the Holy Land under the jurisdiction of the State of Israel. (Until then, the papacy carefully avoided any formal recognition of the legitimacy of the Jewish state.)

Almost certainly, Pope John Paul I was on his way to making history when he suddenly died a month after taking office. Again, it was personality. Confronted by a reporter with news of a baby, conceived by artificial insemination, a practice branded as immoral by Catholic theologians, the “smiling Pope” immediately answered, “I hope the baby is well!”

Blessed Pope John Paul II made history, at first simply by being of a nationality other than Italian. More importantly, he was to have the Communists on the run until they fell from their summits of power.

Finally, Pope Benedict XVI made history, well before his extraordinary resignation, by presenting to the world the depth and the profound Christianity of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Francis has this gift of personality and this instinct for reaching people. Now, he is regarded by more than a few as revolutionary because of his particular focus both on the Christian vocation and the mission of the Church. He repeatedly calls Catholics to awareness, and to service, of the poor. So, what is new?

In the New Testament, English translation, “poor” or “poverty” appear 37 times. Most quote Jesus. What source could be better? “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3) is there, but most verses clearly have the physically poor in mind.

Finally, the history of the Church as an institution is one long, uninterrupted and unquestioned chronicle of giving priority to the physically poor. Pope Paul VI’s phrase, “preferential option for the poor,” a comment frankly rather lost in Catholic conversation for a while now, was nothing new.

The revolution of Pope Francis is having an effect, and it will continue to have an effect. The breadth of modern social communications is such that his words are transmitted across the world literally as he voices them. Already, he has spoken on many, many occasions.

He has stressed profound commitment and intense prayer as much as any of his predecessors, quite in keeping with St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, whom Pope Francis would have studied in his own life in the Society of Jesus.

For some (maybe many) Catholics, the snag is hardly the Pope’s challenge to believers to be authentic Christians, in the sense of intellectual agreement with doctrine or a personal relationship with the Lord characterized by genuine prayerfulness. It is not his appeal for the poor in the sense of supplying for their needs when they have no resources of their own — although, amazingly, it is not unknown to hear an American Catholic these days grumble about such generosity.

Rather, the problem is the obvious direction to which the papal emphasis on care for the poor is going. It is emergency soup kitchens, but it is more. It is poverty systematically tolerated, and indeed often created, by political, cultural, economic and social powers and conventions.

Thus, a reader of Our Sunday Visitor recently called me, exasperated by the fact that Pope Francis clearly is a “liberation theologian.” Her annoyance astounded me. It was not because of an unfair conclusion drawn from his Argentinian heritage, but because he had allowed disciplining of a German bishop accused of squandering Church wealth on his own lodging and way of life. “The Church,” she told me, “always has encouraged the creation, and use, of beautiful things!”

On a wider level, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a former Catholic who was the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, criticized Pope Francis as being too liberal, and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh outright called the Pope a “Marxist.”

These comments were extreme. If the Pope’s stress on serving the poor is carried to its obvious extent, however, many Catholics in this country may find themselves confronted with an unwelcome reality. They will have to explain, first to themselves, maybe then to others, the Catholic propriety of cherished assumptions and the wisdom, in a Catholic sense, of some views and of some admired public figures.

These Catholics will contend with their situation in an environment that would have seemed unusual, or even shocking, to American Catholics 40 or 80 years ago. Active interest in the poor and in structured poverty was part of Catholic life in this country, and it seemed to Catholics to be fitting. For generations Catholics had been on the bottom of the economic ladder. Struggling was the plight of so many.

Catholics expected the Church to provide in situations in which they were denied because of their religion, or lack of wherewithal, or both, and Catholics came to assume that Church leaders would advocate and demand for them. The Church met their expectations.

It was the time of priests renowned for their interests in social justice: Jesuit Father John LaFarge, Msgr. John Ryan, Sulpician Father John F. Cronin, and so on. The list was long.

As the World War II ended, Catholic Americans began to move up the staircase of economic success. Enabling very many were the various “GI bills” that provided government-guaranteed loans for higher education and the purchase of homes. (No one grumbled that the government was inserting itself in the lending business).

In a decade, Catholics were numerous in the middle class, and not necessarily hardhearted, but no longer as trapped in bad circumstances as their parents and forebears had been.

Medicare came in the 1960s, health care designed for the elderly sick. It put the government squarely in the health care insurance field, and in effect severely impeded private insurance as a player in senior citizens’ medical care. Few were the Catholics who opposed Medicare. Church leaders cheered. (Read Our Sunday Visitor from those days.)

A major event occurred in 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion on demand. Contrary to charges of some, the aftermath of the Roe v. Wade decision was accompanied by a superb job of catechizing by Catholic bishops and priests. Prior to that time, little had been said about abortion, even in Catholic religious education. Check the old religion textbooks. Why? Abortion was illegal. A rigid social taboo existed about it.

Bishops left no doubt as to what the Church thought about Roe v. Wade. In response, so many Catholics established political ties with elements once rarely represented in Catholic circles and broke old alliances.

Forty years have passed since Roe. Pastors must be prepared to explain this renewed agenda for the poor, and against systemic poverty, by contending with connections and attitudes that are now in play.

The Pope bluntly has asked the world’s Catholics to remember that many evils assail humanity other than abortion, although he always insists that abortion is itself a moral outrage. Instead of hearing what Pope Francis says, many Catholics hastily condemn him for relaxing opposition to abortion. It is not the case.

Catholics have long been taught that in a special way the Holy Spirit guides the head of the Church. Many still preach that God’s grace empowers the Church, but this assertion is offset by a cynicism, borrowed from the irreligion and inclination to presume human helplessness in the face of the unhappy reality that besets this culture. Nevertheless, this is the teaching of the Church. We cannot be selective. If God assisted Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, is He not assisting Pope Francis?

Ultimately, I personally believe, the problem will lie in convincing people that nothing justly robs any person of basic human dignity, and that people, one person at a time, can change the world. Problems created by humans can be solved by humans.

God bless Pope Francis.

* * *

Constant, and consistent, among all the recent pontiffs, and of course many before, has been a call to Christians — and indeed to priests in particular — to pray, “to open the heart and mind to God,” as the old Baltimore Catechism put it.

This edition of The Priest concentrates on prayer, in the firm belief that genuine prayer is any priest’s lifeline and his source of joy and fulfillment.

Articles on prayer appear on Pages 18, 35, 38, 43 and 46. They cover many aspects of “opening the heart and mind to God.”

The year 2014 is still new, time yet for resolutions. Lent will be coming in March. Life lies ahead. We offer these articles in the hope that they will enable priestly prayer. We assure our readers of our prayers. Please pray for us.

MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.