Roars into Town
Steven M. Avella
spent a portion of
the late spring in Rome this year, residing at the Generalate of the
Salvatorian Fathers on the Via della Conciliazione while doing
research in the Vatican archives. My room faced the noisy Via and I
often watched the crowds coming and going to St. Peter’s Square.
From my window I had a bird’s eye view of the Harley Davidson rally that
came to Rome in June. It was like having a bit of Milwaukee in the Eternal
City (we just had another one of those noisy affairs here on Labor Day
On the last day of the rally, barricades were erected down the center of the
broad street and on each side Harleys were parked and ready. Papa Francesco
traveled between the barricades, waving and smiling. As he passed, the
Milwaukee-made Hogs roared in tribute.
I’ve never seen anything like it. Francesco’s smile, ebullience, and energy
told me how much he loved being here. Every roar of the engines made that
wonderful smile even wider.
And the barricades were of no consequence. Francesco leaned over them and
the leather-jacketed, bandanna-wearing bikers reached out beyond them.
had seen the same thing earlier that month, when the new pope made an
unexpected appearance at the end of a Mass in St. Peter’s commemorating the
50th anniversary of the death of Pope John XXIII. We saw it again in Brazil
at World Youth Day. To the now well-known horror of his security people, the
pope insists on reaching over the boundaries to the people, and the people
This barricade-breaching is symbolic of the first months of his papacy. He
refused his rooms in the Apostolic Palace. (What apostle ever lived in a
palace?) He phones people who write to him—including a rape victim and a
woman contemplating abortion. He visits Vatican garages and workshops.
He refuses to shed the role of pastor and bishop for bureaucrat and mere
tourist attraction. He insists on having “the smell of the sheep.” He caused
a world-wide outbreak of “pearl clutching” by washing the feet of a
woman—who was also a Muslim (double horror to liturgical fundamentalists and
Islamophobes). He has little use for frilly vestments, ostentatious pectoral
crosses, and pompous ceremonies.
On the day of his installation, he gazed at his watch, anxious to keep the
ponderous rituals within the limits of human endurance on those hard chairs
in the Piazza di San Pietro. With a few simple words about gay priests (and
gays everywhere)—“Who am I to judge”—he sounded a new chord of mercy and
pastoral practice, albeit one that many priests and religious in the field
have struck for years. The barricades keep coming down.
I’ve followed the pope as closely as any priest in the months between March
and last August and I don’t know if he’s having a honeymoon of any sort.
The problems, great and small, are still out there: the seemingly
never-ending scandals of the Vatican bank, the cardinals who have on their
own authority re-swathed themselves in yards of regal scarlet, the grumbling
of Latin Mass
enthusiasts who find Francis problematic, even the poor souvenir sellers who
have huge backlogs of Benedict key-chains, pennants, and Chia statues they
continue with their predictions—transmitting
what their sources have to say. I read them with some interest, but
remember they were the same ones who assured us that we were going to have
Pope Scola or Pope Scherer and who conferred legitimacy on Cardinal Peter
Turkson’s brutta figura campaign to have himself elected.
hot-off-the-press book by British journalist Paul Vallely purports to give
the real story on Francesco’s years in Argentina. Maybe.
am not a Vatican insider and have no Roman connections or sources. I spent
40 days in Rome this spring and summer and just watched and observed. I
spoke with a few churchmen, but never got what I would consider a scoop.
Here are my reflections for what they are worth.
First, Francis is the real deal. There is nothing fake, artificial, or phony
about him. The enthusiastic reaction to him reflects a pent-up desire for
change and a dissatisfaction with the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.
got this from priests, religious, and ordinary folks I met at audiences and
papal Masses. Francesco is joyful, not morose—not inveighing constantly
against the “culture of death,” or singling out enemies to hit, or rallying
the “frozen chosen” behind some antiquarian restorationist agenda. His
three-point speeches and homilies invite listeners to mercy, compassion, and
Second, as a priest, I have paid close attention to the pontiff’s frank
condemnation of clerical careerism, which at one point he compared to
“leprosy.” On several occasions Francis has sent clear signals that priestly
ministry is a vocation not a career path, and that smaller dioceses are not
stepping-stones to “something better.” How often I’ve heard the clerical
handicapping over the past 30 years—and even done a bit of it myself.
I’ve also watched priests and bishops do the preening, shape-shifting, and
calculated denunciations of those on the hit list of previous pontificates
(theological dissidents, feminists, gays, etc.) in order to position
themselves for a miter or promotion to a more prestigious diocese. I wonder
now where all that bella figura will go with a pope who is wise to it
all and apparently not impressed by episcopal wannabes? Third, the themes of
Francesco’s preaching appear consistent. Love the poor. Priests, get out of
your sacristies and rectories and go to the marginalized. Love of God and
love of neighbor are inseparable.
From time to time, his informal comments have given rare insights. The
lengthy press conference he held aboard the airplane on the trip home from
Brazil was remarkable not only for the positive media coverage but also for
his willingness to speak frankly and without notes on a wide variety of
What does the future hold?
More Grist for the Mill.
At the end of the official papal
vacation season, Francis resumed his daily Masses and thronged audiences.
His sermons and allocutions on these occasions are important sources of his
thought on many issues.
In August, he gave an extensive interview to his confrere Antonio Spadaro,
S.J. of the Italian Jesuit magazine
La Civiltà Cattolica
and which was reprinted in America. This free-flowing and frank
discussion once again set the press cycle on fire. Can we hope for more
interviews of this kind, perhaps with secular journalists who might pose
even tougher questions. Barack Obama sat down with Bill O’Reilly. Could Papa
Francesco sit down with Rachel Maddow?
A Momentous Double
The pontiff obviously respects and holds sacred the memory of John Paul II,
the man who made him a cardinal. But his words and presence at the Mass
honoring Blessed John XXIII (where he again reached over the barricades)
reflected an affinity for that predecessor.
When Francesco showed up at the end of the Mass, the crowd inside St.
Peter’s went wild. When the bishop offering him formal greetings noted the
pope’s resemblance to the beloved John, the basilica again erupted in
cheers. The crowds at both tombs in St. Peter’s are always thronged. This
canonization will likely be the biggest event since the elevation of the
saintly stigmatic, Padre Pio, in 2002.
On his trip to Assisi in October, Francis may again reach beyond the
barricades—as did Pope John Paul II—to reaffirm one of the critical
ecumenical thrusts of Vatican II: to affirm what is beautiful, good, and
true in the other faith traditions of the world.
More Vocal Opposition.
Francis has already begun to field criticisms of his actions and words.
One pro-Latin Mass blogger, Jeffrey Tucker, of the New Liturgical
Movement, found “many aspects of this papacy to be annoying”—but later
rolled back those comments. A conservative blogger, Katrina Fernandez, also
wrote critically of the pontiff’s disregard for ecclesiastical finery and
one of her correspondents sniffed about his vestments, “Frankly, he looks
like he has kind of tacky taste.” (As if entertaining the pretentious
aesthetic sensibilities of these dilettantes is the raison d’être for
the sacred liturgy.)
Although Francis has been respectful and loving to his predecessor (his
first papal act was to ask prayers for him), there are many who are growing
“weary” of the comparisons made between the two men—often unfavorable toward
Benedict. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia worries that the
“orthodox” will be left behind. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York seemingly
downplayed the pope’s kindly words to gays (“He was on a high”) and grumped
publicly about the time it’s taking for the pope to move forward on
administrative reforms. He too has changed his tone in recent days—now
offering three points in his folksy talks and sermons just like Francesco.
Likely, the chorus and the tempo of dissent will pick up if and when he
becomes too forceful on issues like social justice. But the right-wing of
the Catholic community is ready. These often ferocious defenders of the
without blinking, advance a sophisticated method of “nuancing” the reception
of papal messages—that will make liberal theologian Charles Curran seem like
a troglodyte. What the right once derided as “Cafeteria Catholicism” will
now make more sense to them since it’s their ox that’s being gored.
What should we hope for?
At the risk of projecting
my own issues on the Holy Father or imagining him to be something he is not,
I am encouraged that today there is at least the possibility of engaging a
few issues that were simply off the table in the past pontificates.
Francis touched on a
neuralgic topic of homosexuality in the church with his “Who am I to judge”
comment on gay priests during the press conference home from Brazil. Of
course, the barricade battalion was out in full-force insisting that these
compassionate words are “what the church always taught.” Fair enough—but as
some commentators have noted, the pope’s words suggest a different, more
pastoral tone. They come at a moment when social acceptance of homosexuality
is rising around the world.
Catholic teaching may not
be susceptible to change or the church open to same-sex marriage, but there
is increasing acceptance and legitimation of this throughout many portions
of the world. The church has to make some credible and intelligent response
to the questions raised by this changing cultural climate. Whatever he has
said about gays and lesbians has been gentle and respectful—and for those of
us in the trenches ministering to these folks, it has been a great relief.
Francis has spent time
speaking against clericalism and the offensive careerism it has spawned
among priests. Pastors not peacocks are needed now, he insists.
Could he be signaling a
major shift in the composition of the College of Bishops and the College of
Cardinals? Although this may seem like insider stuff, it really does matter
who governs the local churches—because with all due respect to Rome, that is
where the action is.
Popes John Paul II and
Benedict XVI both made it a priority to reshape the College of Bishops, and
many of those they appointed to it are good men who genuinely love and wish
to serve their flocks. However, Francis should call a halt to consecrating
bureaucrats, canon lawyers, and academics of a certain stripe. He should
positively reject the obviously ambitious types.
He could also take a cue
from his predecessor, who took time to pay attention to what he considered
the dysfunctional dioceses in the world. But instead of removing bishops who
are poor financial administrators or whose chief “sin” was to call for
dialogue with those who disagree with the church, he should move forcefully
against any bishop who has knowingly shielded or withheld information about
sexual abusers (Kansas City).
He might also investigate
cases where the local bishop has lost all credibility and pastoral
effectiveness with both priests and people, or who has used the Eucharist as
a weapon against political opponents. A good bellwether of where this may be
going, at least in the United States, will be the man who replaces Cardinal
Francis George of Chicago.
It would be a great idea
to revise the rules regarding episcopal selection by involving priests,
religious, and lay persons in the process of choosing worthy candidates—as
was the case with such ecclesiastical giants as St. Ambrose and St.
Augustine. Dioceses should have the benefit of appointments of men who are
“lovers of the place”—who grew up and who know the people and the land they
serve. Making a Roman education a major criterion for episcopal selection is
a short-sighted policy that has deprived the American church of many fine
domestically trained men with solid leadership skills and good theological
Francis appears to be
placing much stock in the “Gang of Eight” cardinals whom he has chosen to
advise him on rewriting the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia. Let’s
hope they don’t spend too much time fretting over the Vatican Bank. (Just
close the damned thing and transfer its critical functions to new and better
monitored agencies.) Can this group transcend the rather narrow task of
reforming the curia and recognize the signs of the times and the new
framework Francesco’s words and actions have created for the church?
The pontiff should call a
halt to the unseemly chasing after the Society of St. Pius X and end the
unpopular persecution of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. It is
difficult to explain why the Vatican has been so tolerant of people who
reject whole or in portion the Second Vatican Council while bashing the
American sisters whose major “sin” seems to have been supporting the
Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare.
As the barricades erected
during the past two papacies have begun to be dismantled by Papa Francesco,
I have seen so much good will and enthusiasm surface among fellow priests,
religious, and lay persons. Hope, that most wonderful of Christian virtues,
has risen like a Phoenix, as it always does. He is, at least at this phase
of his pontificate, so much like another pope who lifted barricades when he
called Vatican II: soon-to-be Saint John XXIII.
It may all come to an
end. We have a long-serving diplomat in the Secretariat of State and a
Legionary of Christ heading up the affairs of the Vatican state—not much for
bold new initiatives in church governance. But whatever Francis
accomplishes, he has at least started well.
And if I had a Harley
Hog, I’d rev that engine three times in his honor and hold my hands up for a
Since I finished this
piece, the Spadaro interview of last August has appeared. Once again the new
cycle of commentary erupted from churchmen, Vaticanisti, and people in the
pews. Of course the “nothing has changed” crowd served up its regular dish
of the hermeneutic of continuity, ignoring or attempting to re-write the
church’s often negative and pastorally insensitive actions towards those “on
In particular, I am
simply amazed by the apparent ease with which they gloss over the explicit
criticism of the previous pontificate’s suggestion for a “smaller” church.
“This church, with which we should be thinking, is the home of all, not a
small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,” said
Francis. “We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest
protecting our mediocrity.”
But these mental
contortionists must really be running scared as their sacred triumvirate of
abortion, birth control, and homosexuality is being set aside to focus on a
new and more pastoral triad: mercy, inclusion, and compassion. Francis
speaks of the church for which I was ordained 34 years ago—a “field
hospital” with “the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the
faithful”; a church that refuses to “lock itself up in small things, in
small-minded rules”; a place where training for the priesthood and ministry
must produce “ministers of mercy above all.”
Nothing has changed?
In your dreams.
Avanti Santo Padre!