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Judging and fudging Pope Francis

Fatima Measham |  23 September 2013

Pope Francis meme 'Who am I to judge?The contest over the meaning and implication of papal statements has probably never been this intense. Ever since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio stepped onto a balcony at St Peter's Basilica as Pope Francis, his words have been abbreviated, deconstructed and turned into memes.

The interview published last week, conducted by La Civiltà Catolica and America on behalf of major Jesuit journals worldwide, has prompted fresh fervour. It presents a candid profile of the first Latin American and first Jesuit Pope. The interview has been met with admiration and delight, as well as astonishment and caution, as has been the pattern for seemingly every remark and gesture the Pope has made over the past six months.

If nothing else, the attention suggests that the Roman pontiff is still held relevant, even by those who regard religious institutions as anachronistic. What he says, matters. What this Pope says and does probably matters more than usual, given the crossroads at which the Catholic Church finds itself, as well as the global challenges to which it must respond. The Church still has something to say in a world that continues to demonise and exploit the vulnerable, and it must be able to say it with force and resonance.

All this would have weighed on the conclave last March. At the time, however, I did not think the election of a new pope mattered. It seemed to me that the conclave had always been about maintaining the status quo. The sitting pope appoints the cardinals who must eventually choose his successor, which tends to secure continuity.

Still, I got into the spirit of poring over papabili and wished for a pope from Africa or Asia, saying that it would be like having Yoda in the Vatican. A desire for change lay underneath my irreverence. I wanted to see some sort of institutional acknowledgement that things aren't working; that the hierarchy understood what was required to revive the Church for the ages. I wanted, most of all, to be surprised.

Of course, there was already the surprise of Pope Benedict XVI relinquishing office, nearly six centuries after the last papal resignation. Perhaps it was this unexpected turn of events that enlarged the sense of possibility for the cardinal electors; it constituted opportunity and permission to do something different. On the fifth ballot, they elected a man who had not even appeared on anyone's radar.

I had wanted a surprise outcome, yet met it with great ambivalence. Maybe it was the shock of a Jesuit pope. I reserved judgment for quite some time, against an overwhelming impulse to own him.

I had studied at Ateneo de Manila University, which is Jesuit in history, culture and outlook. I was a member of Ateneo Student Catholic Action, which is animated by Ignatian spirituality and liberation theology. I had undertaken silent retreats based on the Spiritual Exercises and directed by Jesuit priests. Yet I decided that none of these necessarily lends insight into the man. I did not want to be reckless in my regard, conscious of the bias.

Perhaps it is a measure of my sense of alienation from the Church that I was also sceptical of his capacity to address the suffocating aspects of bishopric language and clerical culture, the moral and ritual fastidiousness that has hurt good people yet failed to protect and care for the children in its pews.

So I reserved judgment when Francis took the bus with the cardinals after his election, paid for his hotel bill himself, carried his own bag and moved to simple quarters at Casa Santa Marta. I reserved judgment when he downsized the papal throne to a simple white chair and wore plain black shoes rather than the customary papal scarlet. These seemed nothing more than anecdotes, charming though they were.

Then he washed the feet of prisoners, including women and Muslims, at Easter. He spoke at Lampedusa, holding a crozier made from a shipwrecked boat that had borne asylum seekers. He rang people who sent letters that triggered a paternal response. He spoke with great resonance and consistency on mercy and healing, on meeting people of good work and good will regardless of belief or unbelief and sexuality, on taking the Gospel to the streets where people are.

I finally realised: here is a pope who articulates the sentiments closest to my sense of faith and church, a truly pastoral pope who finds God in everything, even in the brokenness and darkest regrets of the human heart.

It brings some amusement, therefore, to see the mad scramble to dilute and reconfigure the sense of his words, the caveats — offered always by others, not himself — around some of his more provocative statements. It is interesting to hear the chorus in some quarters that he does not change anything, and probably won't.

Yet for someone like me who has been looking for someone like this, the change has already come. If nothing else, Pope Francis has shown me how much I had underestimated the God of surprises. I can't wait for more.

Fatima Measham headshotFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator who contributes regularly to Eureka Street. Her work has also appeared in The Drum, ABC Religion & Ethics, and National Times. She is a recipient of the Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship in 2013. She blogs at This Is Complicated and tweets as @foomeister.



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Submitted comments

> It is interesting to hear the chorus in some quarters that he does not change anything, and probably won't. I can just see Gilbert and Sullivan writing a chorus of bishops who respond (in song of course) to everything the lead actor sings: "He does not mean it. No, not that way. He couldn't mean it. No, not that way"

Josh Hillman 23 September 2013

Thank you for your interesting insights. It is clear that the Pope challenges those who gain power from the status quo. I would like to see him take on the corrosive impact of Opus Dei who would take the Church back to the Dark Ages.

Patricia R 24 September 2013

Thank you for this insight. I also hold out great hope for this Pope and our church. However it will take many people of good will to support Pope Francis before real change happens.

Robert Chambers 24 September 2013

Pope Francis is surely Pope XXIII reincarnated.

Toan Nguyen 24 September 2013

The surprise should not be Pope Francis' statement, but the continued overemphasis and false witness to the church's teachings by the sectors of the church wishing to conquer and divide.

AURELIUS 24 September 2013

More of the same cafeteria ultramontanism from the liberals. Are there two Pope Francises? Just for the record (again): Pope Francis joins pro-lifers in their rallies, says same sex marriage recognition is the work of the devil, regards men-only ministerial priesthood is a settled issue, and so on. How long can liberals avert their gaze?

HH 24 September 2013

No there are not two Pope Francises - there is just the one. He is the one Pope Francis who has realised the importance of preaching the truth with love, and how there is plenty of flexibility permitted when it comes to the presentation of the faith.

Neil 24 September 2013

It seems to me the Pope finds obnoxious those who are always going on and on about, what you always go on about, H.H. He wants people to get the 'point' of what Christ's death and resurrection is truly all about: Love and Mercy. Something I am yet to read about in your comments...Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends. Would you give your life for a friend, H.H, or just lecture her on her abortion if she had one. An abortion may be the fruit of ignorance, as most sins are. And why lecture a gay married couple. When their life and love for each other may be purer and more acceptable to God, than your life may be? ...Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends. Perhaps, that gay couple you so easily condemn, know exactly what Christ meant by these words. And God knows, they know too. So who are you to lecture or judge them? Shalom.

peter bohm 24 September 2013

HH, there is no need to so off-handedly dismiss the enthusiasm liberal Catholics have for Francis - the pope we all share, including liberal, traditionalist and conservative Catholics. And we also share the hope for a united Church, whatever tag we might accept as a descriptor for our particular perspective on faith. The enthusiasm for Francis is very much centred on the compassion he shows for all members of the Church. As for degrees of orthodoxy, Francis's comments on Christian unity in the interview conducted by La Civiltà Catolica and America, gives hope for a more courageous Vatican that will demonstrate its stated belief in the work of the Spirit through and with the laity: “We must walk united with our differences: there is no other way to become one. This is the way of Jesus.”

Ian Fraser 24 September 2013

Does it really matter where the Pope came from geographically? He has emerged from a patriarchal, hierarchical and exclusive institution in which he was near the summit beforehand. We appear to be attaching inordinate importance to simple healthy human gestures, valuable as they are, more because of hope and expectation for substantive institutional change rather than the real prospect of addressing the Church's fundamental alienating characteristics.

John Gherardi 24 September 2013

Ian, thanks, and a first response: when did those liberals show enthusiasm for Pope Benedict, "the pope we all share[d]"? I saw only wall to wall gnashing of teeth! Now, get me right: I don't mind opposition to popes on non- infallible issues. ["Non-infallible" - that's where the liberals get it so wrong.] There's nothing like healthy feedback. You see, I'm not an ultramontane, left or right. I'm a Catholic.

HH 24 September 2013

As I expected, the tone of the conversation descends to base schoolyard politics of liberals versus. I really can't see the relevance of this framework of thing. Gay people can be either liberal or conservative.

AURELIUS 26 September 2013

H.H good to hear you consider youself a catholic. Here's the opinion of another catholic who wishes to be in dialogue with all. "Allow me to refer to a quotation from the Encyclical, which I believe to be very important because it emphasises the fact that the truth, with the witness of faith, is love: “clearly, then, faith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful coexistence with others. One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all” (n. 34). This is the spirit in which I am writing to you " - extract from Letter to a non-believer Pope Francis responds to Dr Eugenio Scalfari journalist of the Italian newspaper " La Repubblica".

Sic transit gloria mundi 26 September 2013

Aurelius the analysis has plummeted to the ultimate fiasco of RC papists facing off avant garde papal zouaves guarding playground moats, full of neo ultramontane anarchist sharks.

Father John George 27 September 2013

Thanks, Sic - that's a beautiful quote from Lumen Fidei. And it's good to know that for Pope Francis there's a huge difference between intransigence, presumption and inflexibility on the one hand and maintaining a coherent, principled position, guaranteed by the divinely inspired magisterium, that steadfastly opposes abortion, "women priests" and "same sex marriage" (inter alia) on the other, as Pope Francis himself has done in the short time he has been the Vicar of Christ.

HH 27 September 2013

The pope has said he will set up a commission to investigate cases of child abuse. That is the wrong thing to do. In case of a suspected crime one calls the cops. Why doesn't he tell the church to notify the civil authorities? Same old cover-up?

David Fisher 29 September 2013

Mr Fisher,His Holiness is well appraised of Vatican abuse protocols. in early mid 2000s Vatican spokesman Fr Lombardi SJ clarified and underlined: "On this subject, however, it is important to take note of the "Guide to Understanding Basic CDF Procedures concerning Sexual Abuse Allegations", as published on the Holy See website. In that Guide, the phrase "Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed" is contained in the section dedicated to "Preliminary Procedures".

Father John George 29 September 2013

I had cautious hope about Francis, Bishop of Rome, but they have been dimmed by reading in last Saturday's Age that he had signed the document excommunicating Greg Reynolds.

Smaragdus. 12 November 2013

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