Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The inheritance of Pope Francis

“In these eight years, we lived in faith some most beautiful luminous moments of the Church’s journey, together with moments in which some clouds gathered overhead.” With these words, pronounced on February 28, 2013, a few hours before his abdication as Pope officially came into effect at 8.00 that same evening, Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI summed up his short pontificate. Unlike his election on April 19, 2005, his abrupt abdication, announced just two weeks before, came as a complete surprise to Christendom as to the world at large. It ended a pontificate which, by and large, seems to have left most Catholics lukewarm.

Superstar popes

During the last eighty years, since Marconi personally created Vatican Radio in 1931 at the bidding of Pope Pius XI, the popes acquired the status of superstars. The last six popes had to attune themselves to this new standing, irrespective whether they were personally so disposed. Though all seemed to have made an effort, only few of them actually warmed up to it. The ones that excelled were Pius XII and, vastly more, John Paul II, the latter significantly having had some training in acting. The rest—John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I and Benedict XVI—set ill at ease both with the burden and hassle of celebrity as with media techniques in general. In this respect, it was Benedict who was the most inept and tactless of them all.

This may actually have been a point in his favour. Video cameras pine for drama and theatrics. They seek excitement. To handle them profitably and strategically calls for a lot of stagecraft and, perhaps, superficiality, which, quite frankly, Benedict had none. Besides, he seemed to be actually adverse to a personality cult built around the Pope. In his very first speech, addressed to the cardinals who had elected him the day before, Benedict put across a subtle criticism towards his media-buff predecessor when he stated that “the new Pope knows that his task is to make Christ’s light shine out before the men and women of today: not his own light, but Christ’s” (italics mine).

Higher quality theology

Notwithstanding, nowadays no Pope can cursorily dismiss the fact that riding the waves of the media serves extremely well the centralisation policy which the Roman Curia had been bent on promoting at least since the Unification of Italy in the mid-19th century. By and by, it may be safely maintained that it was precisely the growth and advancement of media technology on a worldwide span, especially during the last forty years or so, that actually made possible the laying out of the psychological groundwork for the tightening of such a policy, and the actual operational execution of it. Thanks to the media, the Pope somewhat became a ‘global parish priest’, steadily nibbling away the sovereignty of local episcopal jurisdictions.

Show biz and academic work, however, are no bedfellows. Being a researcher and intellectual in his own right, the boards made Benedict’s toes curl. Instead of even attempting to play the prima donna, what he seems to have tried to do was to put his heart into raising the Pope’s theology a notch or two. Worthy as its seems, such an endeavour could not wield much pop appeal. One may even speculate whether, with such proclivity, Benedict had ever been apt to occupy a Pope’s thorny administrative job at all. With the Vatileaks last year exposing the Vatican as a hotbed of intrigue and underhanded turf wars, such speculation may not be considered to be so injudicious, after all.

Unpropitious clouds

Than there are the ‘some clouds [which] gathered overhead’, to which Benedict referred in his last speech as Pope. That had been a veiled reference which, almost certainly, included the issue of clerical sexual abuses, an issue with which his pontificate had been plagued from beginning to end, and which had implicated him personally. The issue is far from over, for sure, with the latest hot case—involving a cardinal, none the less—being revealed just three days before Benedict left the papal office. One may be so bold as to wonder whether Benedict’s abdication itself might be somehow linked to this ominous ‘cloud’, and whether we’ll be hearing more about other possible reasons for his sudden and extraordinary decision.

Such ‘clouds’—whether this, Vatileaks or any other which may cast deep shadows upon the papacy—are unpropitious. The Pope is spiritual leader to 1.1 billion people around the world throughout all continents and countries, who in some way or another look up to him for guidance and solace. It perhaps cannot be denied that, for the large part of these, the Pope is important to their lives. They probably see him as the chief guarantor of their faith. As for Benedict XVI himself, despite whatever ‘clouds’ threatened to eclipse his supreme office, and also despite his human weaknesses, most likely Catholics around the world rested well assured that he was personally a saintly, conscientious man of intelligence and integrity.

The thorn of collegiality

Now that he is gone, perhaps the major concern he leaves behind him is one which has beleaguered the Catholic Church for more than a century and a half, but which, since Vatican II (1962–65), has become a bone of bitter contention within the Church: the question of collegiality. This refers to the role of the college of bishops (the bishops of the world taken collectively) in leading, guiding and teaching the Church. Inversely, it concerns the degree of influence which the Pope and the Roman Curia should be allowed to wield within the Church. The issue is not a merely bureaucratic one. By extension, it affects how dioceses and even parishes are run, and how the Church operates on the regional, national and worldwide levels.

Of the countless debates that took place during Vatican II amongst bishops and conciliar experts, one of the most far-reaching and complex was that of collegiality. Though they eventually settled for an official formula—stating: “Just as, in the Lord’s decree, Saint Peter and the rest of the apostles constitute a single apostolic college, in like fashion the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, successors of the Apostles, are united together.” (Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, 22)—nobody believed, even then, that the issue was an open and shut case. In fact, it bleeds especially today. As it happened, after Paul VI’s cautious steps towards collegiality, during the pontificates of his successors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Roman Curia seems to have succeeded in consolidating its supremacy more than ever. This shall certainly be one of the most fundamental issues the next Pope will have to deal with.

A successor at a tangent

By choosing the humble Argentine Jesuit Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio as Pope, the Cardinals seem to want the Church to move away from the image of an overbearing institution which is turned upon itself. “We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential Church,” the National Catholic Reporter reported Bergoglio to have said before the conclave. As expected, considering the pattern established along the past century or so, the new Pope has not been chosen from the Roman Curia itself. Like his predecessor, he will probably not be able to recuperate the Pope’s lost media appeal completely, though, certainly, the media are at present all over him. Again, it seeks sensation and, perhaps, even scandal. It loves people rocking the boat.

Beyond the superficiality of media-alluring gestures, as a professor of philosophy, literature, and psychology, Pope Francis seems to be sufficiently equipped intellectually as well as academically to cope with complex issues of belief, social justice, and moral conduct. His relatively advanced age might be considered to be a drawback. Being a politically sensitive pastor of long standing, Bergoglio's choice as Pope seems to have been more pragmatic than dramatic. Nevertheless, if his exhortations, admirable as they might be, do not translate into concrete and effective administrative alterations (and, one may add, very soon), they might well be considered to be just words spoken to the wind.

Original version appeared on First (with The Malta Independent), Sunday, 17 March, 2013, pp. 24-25.


  1. For the short while he has been in Post, he seem to have brought with him a gentle warm wind which slowly the Church would do well to soak up. A very good choice indeed.

  2. Ghadni niftakar r-reazzjoni tieghek tmien snin ilu meta giet elett l-Papa Emeritus Benedict. Hadd minnha kollna nafu x'kellu f'Mohhu L-Spirtu Santu. l-ecologija tal-Inkarnazzjoni hija xi haga meravelljuz.

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