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Time gets it right, and wrong, all at once

  • December 25, 2013

It is splendid indeed that Time magazine made Pope Francis its “Person of the Year” for 2013. The Pope has captured the imagination of the world and has breathed new life into the Catholic Church.

The authors of the Time piece are right in saying that his choice of name has set the tone for his papacy so far. He has resolved to be, like St. Francis, a friend of the poor and the forgotten. He has determined to be a person of compassion, leading with the merciful face of Christ.

In this regard, details matter: His choice to live in the Casa Santa Marta rather than in the Apostolic Palace, being driven around in an old clunker rather than a Vatican limousine, paying his own bill at the clerical residence where he stayed prior to his election, flying coach class, embracing the man with the severely deformed face.

The controversial interviews he granted a few months ago also speak of this change in focus. The Pope does not want priests and other Catholic ministers to lead with the “hot button” issues largely centring around sexual morality. He wants the Church to present itself as a “field hospital” after a battle, a place of comfort and mercy. His insistence that Holy Communion is “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” is also perfectly congruent with this shift in emphasis. As I say, all of this is remarkable and worth celebrating, and I’m glad the popular secular press has caught on.

However, there is something that has been bothering me ever since Francis became Pope, and it’s on rather massive display in the Time article, namely, a tendency to distinguish radically between this lovely Franciscan emphasis on mercy and love for the poor and the apparently far less than lovely emphasis on doctrine so characteristic of the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. There is actually a good deal of dangerous silliness in this way of characterizing things.

If I might cite the much-maligned Benedict, the Church does essentially three things: it cares for the poor, worships God, evangelizes. Isolate any of the three from the other two and distortions set in. Indeed, without deep care for the poor and for social justice, the worship of God can become lifeless (“liturgical fussiness”) and evangelizing can devolve into cultural criticism or mere intellectual debating.

But isolate care for the poor from the other two and equally problematic distortions ensue. Without the worship of God and evangelization, the Church deteriorates in short order into one more social service institution among many, a mere “NGO” in Francis’s own language.

Now listen to the authors of the Time article: “In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the Church — the Church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world — above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors.” And “his vision is of a pastoral — and not doctrinaire — Church.” This is so much nonsense.

The great figures of the Church — Irenaeus, Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Newman, etc., etc. — have taken doctrine with utmost seriousness. No one doubts that Francis of Assisi himself loved the poor and marginalized, but how many realize that one of his principal concerns was for liturgical propriety?

Toward the end of the Time piece, the authors mention two features of Francis’ life which effectively undermine their central argument. The “Person of the Year” spends huge swaths of his day at prayer. Rising at five, he prays until seven and then celebrates Mass. And after dinner, he spends several more hours before the Blessed Sacrament. As has been the case with so many of the Church’s saints, his love for the poor flows from an intense worship of God.

The article closes with a look at one of the Pope’s Wednesday general audiences. The topic of Francis’s remarks that day was the resurrection of Jesus. After declaring the Church’s age-old doctrine, the Pope looked up from his text and asked the crowd, “Do you believe it?” When they responded, “Yes!” he said again, “Do you believe it?” This is not a man who is unconcerned with clarity of dogma.

I’m delighted that Time has made the Pope its “Person of the Year,” but I would caution all of the commentariat: don’t drive a wedge between the three dimensions of Francis’ life and the Church’s life!

(Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago.)

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