Next up for beatification: Paul VI, the “Hamlet Pope”

Pope Paul VI (Photo: PA). Accessed at, May 18, 2014.

Pope Paul VI (Photo: PA). Accessed at, May 18, 2014.

In my heart, I maintain a very special category of person. I call these people “Popes I Would Like to Have a Beer With.” I’ve already written about one of them, Pius XI.

But while I am charmed by the blustery, scholarly Pius, I feel a deeper kinship–indeed a brotherhood–with Paul VI, one of the two Vatican II popes. His life and mine have followed parallel tracks.

We were both extremely shy kids who talked like we had swallowed the dictionary. We both came to prefer cats to dogs, to loathe the telephone, and to have the same bad knee (the right one). We would both feel caught in some way between “new church” and “old church.”

In our youth, we both edited student publications. (Mine was called The Megaphone. His was called The Slingshot.) We both puzzled over whether to pursue a journalistic vocation or some sort of religious one. We both struggled with major decisions, period. How do you explain to people not just all the things that can go wrong, but your ability to see all of them at once? I know what it’s like. So did he.

Suffice it to say he is somebody I think about a lot. And now I will think about him even more. Pope Francis recently announced his intent to beatify Paul VI–make him a “blessed,” one step below saint–on October 19, 2014, exactly one week before my thirty-first birthday.  Continue reading

After him came the modern popes

Today is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the death of Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti, Pope Pius XI. It is the sort of thing only I would pay attention to.

I am an unusual member of the church justice movement. I consider dead popes my dear friends, even as I laser-critique the two popes who are living.

When one of my theology professors remarked that Pius XI would have been a fun pope to have a beer with, I enthusiastically agreed. In fact, I exceeded his sentiment. I thought Pius would have been a really fun pope for me to have a beer with.

Ratti as a child was called “the little old man.” He worked his way through an algebra book “for fun.” He was not unlike me, who memorized all two-hundred-plus popes at age eleven “for fun.”

Meanwhile, as a former library clerk and an erstwhile cataloger for a special collection, I appreciate that Ratti was a longtime librarian and archivist. Nay, more: he was a paleographer, a scholar of “old writing.” And I share his instinctive, unquestioning esteem for crabbed Greek letters inked onto delicate parchment, for Latin sentences chiseled into silent stone.

Pius wouldn’t like my blog, but he would be enthusiastic about blogging. He was the pope who hurled the church into the communications age by founding Vatican Radio. Its first broadcast featured his modest utterance: “Listen, heavens, while I speak; earth, hear the words that I am saying.” (He was quoting Deuteronomy 32.) Pius also lectured a group of nuns on the many glories of the telephone.

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For all the saints

I paged through my pre-Vatican II Latin missal. I was seeking a reference for something I remembered about the old liturgical calendar. While thus engaged, my eyes stumbled over this, from the Proper of the Saints:

St. Peter of Verona was a famous preacher of the Dominican Order, opposing heretics from childhood. He never committed mortal sin. He wished to die for his faith, and his prayer was heard A.D. 1252.

I almost threw up a little in the back of my mouth. Such are the cardboard figures, or at least the monochrome hagiographies, so often given to us for our edification.

I have awkward relationships with the saints. It makes sense. I have heard the saints are our friends. And I usually have awkward relationships with my friends.

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The pope and the machine

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., now Pope Francis, has been on St. Peter’s chair for nine months. Many of us in the progressive Catholic movement still wonder who he is.

He refuses ornate vestments. He drives himself sans chauffeur in a fixed-up rust bucket. He has claimed a permanent room in a guesthouse. He has appointed a reform advisory committee. He gives candid interviews to one journalist after another. He reputedly slips out of the Vatican at night to minister with the poor. He sternly takes the rich to task in the first teaching document, Evangelii Gaudium, for which he is the principal author. (Francis’ now-retired neighbor, Benedict XVI, did most of the work for Lumen Fidei.)

Yet Francis declares women’s ordination a closed book. And, as is relentlessly and justly pointed out, neither the Catechism nor canon law have changed, with every “t” still crossed and every “i” yet dotted. Some suspect a P.R. machine is snowing them and they have said so. Is he style, they ask, or is he substance?

But perhaps a more fruitful question is: what can a pope do and what can’t a pope do? I don’t mean what a pope morally or theologically ought to do. I mean practically speaking.

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The pope speaks

So, Pope Francis talked. Big-time. You’ve heard of this?

In August, the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor-in-chief of the Italian Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, interviewed the pope in cooperation with several other Jesuit magazines. Last Thursday, they simultaneously released his interview. America has the English version, officially postdated for their Sept. 30 issue.

The commentariat promptly sprang into action. Everybody fell over each other to read the latest tea leaves. The result was a wagon-load of hasty “insta-responses,” as one of my Twitter peeps called them. Recognizing this, I will refrain from offering some grand, sweeping narrative of what Francis meant.

But still, I was moved and relieved by various papal remarks. I will highlight a partial selection:

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Our prayers at work

Did anybody else notice that secretary of state John Kerry’s “slip of the tongue” suggestion that Syria give up its chemical weapons took place on the Monday after Pope Francis’ prayer vigil for peace? After a week of negotiations, the U.S. and Russia reached an agreement on Saturday to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. Suddenly, we have gone from gearing up for an escalation to potentially capping the scope of the conflict in Syria.


Mary, Queen of Peace

I don’t believe that it was a coincidence. Led by the pope, millions of people asked for the intercession of Mary, Queen of Peace, and there appeared to be an answer. Any believer in the power of prayer would acknowledge the likelihood that Kerry did not accidentally think of a solution on his own. He has a lot of people praying for him to make the right decisions, and

Though this agreement is good news, let’s not be naive. It still has to be implemented. The Obama administration still has military action on the table. The war in Syria still rages on. Other conflicts, such as those in Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Palestine and the Philippines, still plague God’s people.

We need to keep praying.

Six months of Pope Francis has shown that the Catholic Church is truly led by a man of God. This was a palpable reminder. Let us continue to follow his lead in praying for a resolution to this conflict and all wars around the world.

Francis and John

A couple days ago at work, I took a call from someone who wanted to know what I personally thought of Pope Francis. I knew what she meant. She didn’t mean what I think of him in general. She meant what I think of him now.

Now, because Francis recently reaffirmed the Vatican “reform” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the largest umbrella group for U.S. sisters. In April 2012 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith put LCWR under the control of three U.S. bishops. Vatican concerns included “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

I thought for a second and said yes, I was disappointed by Francis’ response to the LCWR issue. But I added that I still like him. Francis has open contempt for power and careerism, for triumphalism and money. Inasmuch as reform begins with the pope, I’m not sure he could change anything else unless he starts with those problems anyway.

I also pointed out that someone we now consider a liberal, John XXIII, really wasn’t the liberal of legend. It was John as catalyst, not John as progressive, that mattered. And with that in mind, lately I think a lot about John and Francis, Francis and John.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who became Pope John XXIII on October 28, 1958, was then 76 years old. Although conversant with the socially-engaged Catholicism of his home diocese, Bergamo, he was also thoroughly steeped in traditional nineteenth-century Italian piety: Jesus and Mary and Joseph, devotions and saints, obedience and mortification. His diary and de facto autobiography, Journal of a Soul, reflects as much. His career was solidly bureaucratic, that of a consummate uomo di fiducia, or “reliable man”: three decades in low-key Vatican diplomacy and five quiet years as cardinal-patriarch of Venice.

When the conclave elected Roncalli, one of the qualities his brother cardinals appreciated was his obvious loyalty to his predecessor, the conservative Pius XII. And Roncalli continued some of Pius’ more overtly conservative policies. For example, John–or at least his Curia–would uphold Pius’ decision to shut down the French worker-priest movement, in which clergy took jobs as ordinary laborers to better connect with their flock.

John was also an old-fashioned church historian by avocation, devoted to classical and medieval literature, author of a series of books about the sixteenth-century St. Charles Borromeo. So it was really no big surprise when he issued the 1962 Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia (“The Wisdom of the Ancients”), which pointedly promoted the study and use of Latin. Catholic intelligentsia, riffing on a then-current anti-Communist slogan (Cuba si, Castro no), joked that here was a case of veterum si, sapientia no (“old men, yes; wisdom, no”).

I doubt all of what transpired in Catholicism later in the 1960s and 1970s would have met John’s approval.  You can make a strong case that, despite his now-infamous encyclical against birth control, the real liberal pope of the Second Vatican Council was Giovanni Battista Montini, Pope Paul VI. But Paul, while he would continue the council, also admitted that it simply wouldn’t have occurred to him to initiate it.

And there lay John’s great gift: just to know that something had to be done, that something was missing, that we needed a gust of wind, a new Pentecost, even if he could not precisely envision it. And he intuited that only a gathering of many others besides himself could envision it. By calling the council, which only completed one session before his death, John XXIII had a sweeping effect that far transcended him.

I can see Pope Francis fulfilling a similar role. I know he will never agree with me about many causes for which I work. But I also sense a man with a holy impatience: a pope who, to paraphrase his own pre-conclave words, cannot abide a self-referential church that gets sick choking on its own stale air.

He gives many signals that our self-referential, royalist climate is finished. There is his name, his emphasizing his local role as bishop of Rome, his refusal to move into the nineteen-room papal apartment, his paying his own hotel bills, his black pants and black shoes, his cheap iron pectoral cross, his insistence on constantly dialing up random friends and telling them “it’s Jorge calling,” his historic appointment of eight international cardinals as an advisory council (seven of them metropolitan archbishops, and only one Vatican official), his reported “unblocking” of Oscar Romero’s beatification, his celebration of Holy Thursday in a juvenile detention center. At the Vatican, in many ways a small village where symbolic gestures foreshadow programmatic changes, all this matters very much.

So for now I retain the hope that Pope Francis is himself a catalyst, that he too will have an  impact far transcending his own conscious intent.

(P.S. I’m not the only one pursuing this comparison: Historians ask: Is Francis a John XXIII? | National Catholic Reporter)