By: WAITHAKA WAIHENYA
Days after Pope Francis started his pontificate, there was palpable confusion within the Church about what this man from South America intended to do with a fiercely conservative church that has weathered countless storms for thousands of years.
Within three months he had made statements that ruffled feathers in a number of quarters within the fraternity.
He was deeply upsetting the conservative applecart of senior Catholic prelates but he was already resonating with many followers who had started seeing him as a man whose bent of mind was consonant with their kind of life.
I asked a senior Catholic prelate this question: “Where do you think the new pope is taking the church”?
“I don’t know,” he responded, “and I do not think he knows either.”
I think he was wrong.
The ascendancy of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the throne of St Peter’s may not have been mere happenstance.
Some cardinals, wary of the predisposition of the new Vicar of Christ, had thought him an unlikely candidate for the highest seat at a time when two non-Italians had already ruled the roost at the Vatican.
But when this pope from “the far ends of the earth” as he described himself started straddling the scene with all the pomp and authority of a political superstar, the thinking among the prelates started to shift.
As one cardinal was later to say of Cardinal Bergoglio’s election, “God is good at writing straight with crooked lines.”
A brief study of Jorge Bergoglio right from the days when he was a youth in Argentina to the days when he was the leader of the Society of Jesus in that country up to his days as cardinal reveal a character who has been true to himself in an almost autistic kind of consistency.
FRIEND OF THE POOR
He loved ministering to the poor in the slums of Buenos Aires.
It is the gospel of poverty today that he is preaching as Pope.
He loved taking the train to and from work in a show of austerity when he was cardinal, it is the same austerity that seems to have driven him from the splendour of the papal palace to the modesty of Santa Marta at the edges of the Vatican and eschew the scenic, heavenly Castel Gandolfo, the Papal summer residence.
The church is not used to this kind of man.
The church is full of clergy who live in palatial houses, which is not a bad thing to do, but who sometimes seem out of touch with the poor.
It is also in a state where some of those expected to serve it are slowly or have already succumbed to the imperative of the mammon, entombing themselves in hives of splendour and expecting the flock to contribute their hard earned money in exchange for heavenly rewards.
The church has also slipped into ecclesiastical legalism where the church leaders have made obedience to church rules the most important aspect of church life.
It is these kind of things that Pope Francis has been railing against and which have made his gospel resonate with the flock while leaving the rest of the clergy in a daze.
He once said of Catholics who were overly concerned with sexual ethics that they wanted “to stick the whole world inside a condom” and lambasted priests who refused to baptise children of unmarried mothers calling them “hypocritical clericalists” who were using baptism as a kind of sacramental blackmail.
Popes are known to chart out the courses of their papacies through a series of papal teachings contained in scholastic encyclicals.
THE POPE’S AGENDA
These encyclicals, which are basically circulars written to an audience of bishops offering church guidance on some key issues, are what offers a peek into the thinking of the pope.
The late Pope John Paul II, was known to be at his seismic best in his encyclicals. He wrote 13 encyclicals.
But it was his very first one that defined the trajectory of his papacy.
Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Man) written in 1979 laid out the blueprint of his papacy from the word go.
It is the credo he lived by as he fought the forces of communism, which catapulted him to the stature of one of the most influential popes in recent times.
Pope Benedict wrote three encyclicals, namely Deus Caritas (God is Love), Spe Salvi (In Hope we are Saved) and Caritas Veritate (Charity in Truth).
But if there was one document that allowed the Catholic faithful to peep into Benedict’s monochromatic conservatism, it was Dominus Lesus: On the Unicity and salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.
He authored it when he was the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith.
In his two years of papacy, Pope Francis has authored two encyclicals.
Unlike John Paul’s first encyclical, which laid bare the kind of man he would be at the Vatican, Francis’s first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (Light of Faith) did not offer much in terms of where he wanted to lead the church.
CONCERN FOR THE POOR
It was his second encyclical which, for keen observers, outlined the man’s predilections and the course he wanted the church under him to follow.
Laudato Si’ (Praise be to You— on care of our common home) owes its name to a line from the Canticle of the Sun by St Francis of Assisi.
In fact for Pope Francis, St Francis of Assisi has been his role model. The legendary saint was famous for his concern for the environment.
Born of a rich family, Francis abandoned opulence and went to minister to the poor, preaching to and feeding the birds.
Care for creation has been something close to Pope Francis’ heart and so has been care for the poor.
It is no wonder that when he visits Kenya this week, part of his itinerary will be the Kangemi low-income settlement, a mirror of the Villas Miserias of Buenos Aires where he ministered when he was the Primate of the city.
In his new book, The Francis Miracle, Vatican specialist John L. Allen outlines that the concern for the poor has been the bedrock of Bergoglio as a clergyman.
He spent many years ministering in places such as Villa 21, one of the nameless slums that surround Buenos Aires in the parish of the Virgin of Caacupe.
It was, Allen quotes a Bergoglio protege who lived and worked in the parish as saying, “the sort of place where the future Pope could fill his lungs with the ‘oxygen’ he needed to think about what the Church ought to be.”
But there is another aspect of Pope Francis’ mission that is as important to him as the concern for the environment and the poor.
Mercy has been the other greatest concern of this Pope.
Shortly before he became Pope, Cardinal Bergoglio, in what turned out to be his last Lenten message to the people of Buenos Aires, wrote that “morality is not a-never-falling down but an-always-getting up again”.
That, he told them, was a response to God’s mercy.
On the first Sunday after his election as Pope, he told a congregation at Church of Saint Anna in the Vatican: “Mercy is the Lord’s most powerful message. It is not easy to trust oneself to the mercy of God, because God’s mercy is an unfathomable abyss but we must do it.”
This theme is well demonstrated by the Pope’s refusal to be overly dogmatic when dealing with issues of the church’s teaching such as giving Holy Communion to divorcees and those who have remarried and condemning gays and lesbians.
“Who am I to judge”, he once said when invited to condemn those deemed to be sinners. It is not a popular thing within the circles of the conservatives. But there he is. This Pope of the slums is proving to be God’s way of writing straight with crooked lines.
SOURCE: DAILY NATION