ROME – Five years ago, Pope Francis traveled to the famous Marian shrine of Fatima in Portugal to declare saints two of the three seers of the apparitions and revelations of the Blessed Virgin Mary there, which had begun exactly a century previously May 13, 1917. .
At the time, Francis made it clear that he took the prophecies of the Madonna of Fatima seriously.
“Our Lady foretold and warned us of a way of life which is ungodly and profane in fact God in his creatures,” the pope said. “Such a life – frequently proposed and imposed – risks leading to hell.”
Now, five years later, Pope Francis is preparing to consecrate Russia, as well as Ukraine, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and has asked all the bishops of the world to join him in the act of 25 March, which is the Marian feast of the Annunciation, in accordance with a request from Mary made at Fatima in 1929.
Officially, the Vatican insists that an act of consecration of the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary by Pope John Paul II in 1984 fulfilled Fatima’s request, a position also supported by the late Sr. Lúcia dos Santos , the last of the three visionaries of Fatima. , who died in 2005. Critics objected, however, that Russia was not specifically mentioned, and that not all the bishops of the world joined in the consecration – precisely, it would seem that Francis wanted to check this time.
Whatever its geopolitical or theological significance, the March 25 consecration is also a reminder that for all the ways in which he presents himself as a maverick, disrupter and revolutionary, there are nonetheless senses in which Pope Francis is also extremely traditional, perhaps even more so than its two immediate predecessors.
Of course, the conventional Catholic traditionalism we are all familiar with, with its devotion to the ancient Latin Mass, its liturgical style of smells and bells and its fondness for flowery clerical vestments, as well as an extremely conservative approach to doctrine , is not for the first Latin American pontiff in history. However, just like there’s more than one way to skin a cat, there’s also more than one way to be a traditionalist.
Francis’ approach to religious life, for example, is very traditional, and his style of governance can actually be understood in terms of how Jesuit superiors once did things. That is to say that the superior always has a team of advisers, and beyond this group, he consults whoever he wants before making a decision. This decision, however, is made by him and him alone – and once it is made, he expects it to be respected.
He’s also quite a traditionalist, in Latin American terms anyway, when it comes to pastoral style. He doesn’t much like theology or canon law, seeing them primarily as necessary but of secondary importance, preferring to roll up his sleeves and get involved in the lives of ordinary people, trying as best he can to be theirs. friend and their voice, and confident that over time the Christian beliefs involved in these efforts will make their own case.
From a doctrinal point of view, Francis can sometimes take on a surprisingly traditional side, perhaps especially when he speaks of hell. (This despite a short-lived kerfuffle in 2018 when a nonagenarian Italian journalist claimed that Francis had told him hell did not exist, which was quickly denied by the Vatican in words and disavowed by Francis in practice. .)
Here’s a typical Francis riff, taken from one of his daily masses broadcast live during the first COVID lockdown.
“This generation, like many others, has learned that the devil is a myth, a figure, an idea, the idea of evil,” Francis said. “But the devil exists, and we must fight him.”
Nowhere is what we might call the “hidden traditionalism” of Pope Francis more palpable than in his approach to the Virgin Mary.
It’s hard to see what the die-hard Fatima faithful could object to Francis’ consecration, except perhaps the decision to include Ukraine as well as Russia – a choice obviously motivated by the need to appear apolitical by embracing both sides in the current conflict. Yet Russians, especially Russian Orthodox clergy, can be trusted not to miss the importance of the pontiff dusting off the most ferociously warmongering and anti-Russian devotion of the Cold War in the context of the scorched earth war. of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.
It is well known that Francis begins and ends every trip abroad in the great Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome to pray before his most famous icon, Maria, Salus Populi Romani (“Mary, health of the Roman people.”) On March 11, 2020, Francis entrusted the whole world to the protection of the Virgin Mary amid the coronavirus pandemic, composing a special prayer under her traditional title of “health of the sick “. Our Lady of Lujan in Argentina, Our Lady of the Rosary in Guatemala, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, Our Lady of Coromoto in Venezuela and many more are all part of the pope’s regular personal prayer rotation.
“The great model of a young-hearted Church, ready to follow Christ with freshness and docility, always remains the Virgin Mary,” the pope said in Medjugorje during his 2020 trip to another famous Marian shrine.
Granted, none of this would qualify Francis for membership in the Latin Mass Society or mean he spends his free time browsing office clothing stores for the latest mandibles or papal camauro. (In fact, as Francis gets older, investing in a camauro for Rome’s cold winter months might be a good idea, but that’s not how he rides.)
By now “traditionalism” and “traditionalist” – with its pejorative derivative, “traddie” – have become brand names in Catholicism for a certain group of dogmatic and liturgical beliefs, and the people described by these terms are generally not Francois fans. .
“Tradition,” however, in the Catholic sense, is always a thing of many splendors – and, at least in his own eyes, Pope Francis proves himself to be remarkably traditional.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr