In March 2013, I saw on television a man few of us had heard of asked us to do something for him. He asked for our prayers and lowered his head. In March 2020, this same man walked into an empty St. Peter’s Square, flanked by an icon of Mary and the Lord’s Cross. In a world plagued by turmoil, isolation and disease, he offered us his prayers.
Much has happened under the pontificate of Pope Francis – times of joy and dismay – but we must remember these images. They are the key to his papacy and to the renewal of the Church. It was a pope asking for prayer; a pope offering prayer.
I’m the kind of Catholic who’s supposed to be an enemy of Pope Francis. I think the felt Catholicism of the 1970s was a disaster, rejecting much of the Church’s heritage while ignoring the letter and spirit of the Second Vatican Council. I don’t think the church should “keep up with the times”; the church is the expert on humanity and divinity. I firmly believe that it is not a question of conforming to the times but of renewing the Church by returning to the sources of our faith: the tradition transmitted by the magisterium and all the people of God.
And for these reasons, I support Pope Francis.
It is not a question of conforming to the spirit of the times but of renewing the Church by returning to the sources of our faith: the tradition transmitted by the magisterium and all the people of God.
Pope Francis confuses our expectations because our expectations tend to be shaped by the world. For many on the political left, his pontificate is a time to create a new church in keeping with the times as a nonprofit spiritual agency. Rather than seeing the lines drawn by Francis, many proclaim that his initiatives are “steps” in the right direction, steps towards crossing the lines of Catholic teaching.
Far more painful for me was the response to Francis from many of my traditional-minded Catholic colleagues. A theologian described to me “Traditionis Custodes,” the pope’s recent motu proprio limiting the use of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass in Latin, as a bad-faith reaction to “three people on Twitter.” The good news, they said, was that Pope Francis would die soon enough.
This fits a pattern of discussion by critics of Francis expressed in the sarcastic use of the name “Bergoglio”, the negative hermeneutics applied to what Pope Francis says, and the contempt for papal initiatives which in other circumstances , would please traditionalists – the celebration of Dante, the elevation of St. Irenaeus as Doctor of the Church, the institution of the Year of St. Joseph. Having learned myself how important it is to be committed to the papacy by Catholic traditionalists, I find it dizzying and disheartening to hear the vitriol hurled at our current pontiff.
The Pope prays for us; pray for him. Share his confidence in Christ.
Critics and supporters fail to see Francis’ traditionalism. Allow me to highlight three forms of his traditionalism. First, to be effectively traditional Catholic is to support and implement the reforms of Vatican II. Francis shields this tradition from those of us who think Vatican II is optional or regrettable. It’s neither; it is an essential guide to being Catholic in the modern world and a hermeneutical key to understanding the fullness of our 2,000-year-old tradition.
Second, one of the pope’s tasks is to send missionaries into the world. Gregory sent Augustine to England, Honorius sent Dominicans to Poland, Paul III sent missionaries to the Americas, and Francis sent we “to reach the fringes of humanity”. Many of us at the center of the church are reluctant to do this. We may be too fond of closed doors, national identities, or a Donatist vision of a smaller, purer church. But the essence of the gospel is to spread the gospel. For Francis, the interior life of the Church goes out to those who are outside the Church. What do we have to do? Invite them into the church, for it is inside that we fully encounter Christ. It may not sound so new, but Francis is quite traditional.
Third, at the heart of Francis’ traditionalism are the images I used to open this essay: a pope asking for prayer, a pope offering prayer. It’s the lex orandi of the papacy of Francis, the law of prayer which shapes his ministry and his teaching. In his annual address “Urbi et Orbi”, Francis calls us to “prayer and silent service”. He reminds us to have confidence in these “victorious weapons”. Faced with a global pandemic, Francis is convinced that prayer and works of mercy are the paths to victory.
Just as Peter leaned on Jesus, the pope teaches us that we must rely on the Lord.
This trust is essential to the Petrine office. Just as Peter leaned on Jesus, the pope teaches us that we must rely on the Lord. Francis teaches that “by ourselves we wade: we need the Lord, as the ancient navigators needed the stars”.
Yes, I am worried about the synod on synodality. I fear that too many people see this as a chance to radically change the Church (as in the disastrous German synod), and that the synod diffuses ecclesial authority in a way that undermines doctrinal unity. What we need is not a different church, but a more fully actualized church. And yes, I struggle with what seems to be a lack of priority over liturgical respect and doctrinal clarity. But when I pay attention to his teaching, I repeatedly find his message: “Embrace the Lord to embrace hope.
The Pope prays for us; pray for him. Share his trust in Christ. Let us join him in keeping the tradition and preaching the good news.