instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Here comes Papa

It seems to me that pretty much everything people love, hate, and worry about Pope Francis was on display during last night's "Pope Francis and the People." There was what you might call his charism of nearness -- I think I saw someone mention a "theology of accompaniment" -- that I think fuels much of his popularity. You would love to have a neighbor like him, especially if you were going through rough times, and somehow the world finds it astonishing that a Pope might be so -- I was going to write "approachable," but actually he's the one who seems to do most of the approaching. If you'll pardon the limping analogy, St. John Paul II was a master of the stadium concert, while Francis is happiest doing acoustic sets in coffee shops and on street corners. People love rock stars, and they really love rock stars who make personal connections with their audience. (Benedict, I suppose, would be a technical virtuoso whose ability was overlooked by many.)

There was also, I think, a sort of generic humanism in a lot of what Pope Francis said. He didn't quote the Bible much, he didn't mention Jesus all that often, he only made a firm challenge to the spirit of generic humanism once (in congratulating the mother for not aborting her children). If Twitter is to be believed, that approach appealed to a lot of people, including non-Catholic Christians, non-Christians, and non-theists. At the same time, it bothered some Catholics and other Christians, who saw missed opportunities to preach the Gospel in an explicit and doctrinal way, or to give traditional Catholic moral guidance like frequent reception of the Sacraments and prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

When he did mention Jesus, it was more in a pastoral than a doctrinal way (recognizing that he just argued against a "false opposition ... between theology and pastoral ministry, between Christian reflection and Christian life). Was Jesus really "homeless" when He was born? I'd say no, not in the way that the homeless in Los Angeles shelters are homeless. But what good would my saying that do for the homeless in Los Angeles shelters? The Pope seems less interested in precision of speech than in embracing the person he's speaking to. I'd say why not both, but then he's not speaking to me.

Except in the example he's setting. You can't bring the Gospel, however precisely expressed, to a place you aren't, and the Pope has a way of getting into the hearts of people who are worried about bigger things than precision.

I have seen complaints that a pope can't sacrifice precision for getting into people's hearts, and even the worry that it's precisely through his vagueness that Pope Francis (or at least an impression of him) gets into a lot of hearts that would be closed to him if they saw him coming with the whole of Catholic teaching. Maybe so. I'm not a good judge of that sort of thing.