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)