(Photo by Michael Swan)

Shake, rattle, roil

  • March 2, 2023

An outwardly immovable obstacle to assessing Pope Francis’ papacy at 10 years is the indisputable and unalterable fact that he is the Pope.

While Francis is a head of State (minuscule variety), and while he presides over a governance structure with more priestly-class political pole climbers per capita than any institution on Earth, the whole process of his elevation precludes the typical measures of how well or poorly his past decade of leadership can be reckoned. 

Popularity, for example, is an absurdity as a papal calibration point. Yes, Francis was chosen March 13, 2013 by a conclave of his ecclesiastical brothers. Once he was in the chair, however, the only real means of unseating him would be to toss it in the Tiber. Who has the energy for such a Renaissance re-run these days? 

Recto verso, despite Vatican II’s insistence on the liturgical benefit of clergy facing congregants, the modern populist fantasy commonly referred to as “the people” remains irrelevant to the papacy. We can literally thank God for that. Why? Because it is His Holy Spirit, not some mandate from the masses, that lends supreme executive power to the apostolic successors of Peter. 

So, the Holy Father blessedly sits far above the grottier bits of democracy — those Churchill said make it the worst form of government except for all others — but he does not stand outside history. Allowing for the mini-attention span theatre of our day, it’s legitimate to summarize the 10-year take on the Franciscan papacy as a seismic event that shows no sign of stabilizing. 

Considered entirely non-judgmentally, the quake opened the Church door after Benedict XVI shocked the city and the world by resigning without warning. 

Francis, to be fair, made it unreservedly clear he intended to keep the upheaval rolling for what he foresees as the future of the faith. He did not come to be a care taker. Even those who wish he would take more care with his words, cannot fault him as false faced.

His enduring metaphor has been Church as field hospital. Over 10 years, the question has become how much he actually intended the phrase as a metaphor. The primary condition of a field hospital is that it’s in a field, generally a battle field, meaning in a state of chaotic emergency, often shaken by bomb shells. Juxtapose Francis’ pronunciamentos against each other and the effect is confusion but, even more, a reflex to duck and holler: “Incomiiinnggg.”

Yet it’s in the precise contrariness of his outward conduct as Pope that we can truly assess the greatness Francis represents. His recent travels to Congo, his stunning journey of penance across Canada last summer, and so many other instances, affirm him as the authentic pilgrim Pope. Inside the tent, he shakes, he rattles, he roils. But outside, in the world, the faith rolls before and around him like, well, the Vicar of Christ on earthly pilgrimage.

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