Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Significance of Pope Francis

An understandably popular story careening about the media deals with the retirement of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (a rare creature but something slowly gaining sway: something new in the Roman Catholic Church) and the subsequent conclave of those eligible within the College of Cardinals (another not-quite-so-new requirement: cardinals must be no older than 79 to cast a vote, instituted by Pope Paul VI in 1970) and election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires to the position of Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ, the only titles which really count.  The term "Pope", used specifically to refer to the head of the Roman Catholic Church, didn't come into widespread usage until the 6th century.

                         Pope Francis (just Francis...)             (Guardian)

I have an abiding interest in the history of Christianity, and those who have taken the time to read my brief biography know that I have taught the subject on occasion.  (For the sake of clarity, I am not a Roman Catholic.)  For it is by tradition as well as scripture that we discern the teachings and directions of God, with both scripture and tradition being given different weight within the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant theologies (not to mention the other Christian theologies such as the Syriacs, Copts, Nestorians, and so on).

Based on the Roman Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession, this is important because the Pope has his authority passed down to him from a direct succession from the first Bishop of Rome, St Peter, to whom Christ passed the authority to build his church (again, according to RC interpretation) in Matthew 16:18.  (Protestants argue that it was not Peter himself, previously named Simon but re-named as the "rock" – Petra – of the church, but rather his profession of faith as its foundation.  The same authority was granted by Christ to all the Apostles within two chapters – Matthew 18:18.)

But now a note to newscasters: please contact someone – anyone – who speaks Spanish for the correct pronunciation, or more importantly Italian, since the new Pope's father was an Italian immigrant.  It is "behr-go'-lyo", with the Italian gl pronounced like the Spanish ll, or like the ll in the English word million.  There is a large and significant population in Argentina that is of Italian descent (some estimates put it at 20%), and note that the new Pontiff was born in 1936 – I have already heard queries that the father may have been among the Italian Fascist (and German Nazi) refugees that fled to South America after World War II ended in 1945.  Not so.

(Before moving on, there is still the news item that Benedict XVI is the first to retire in 600 years.  To add some more context, the circumstances back then were entirely different.  The preeminent French in the late 14th century had moved the papacy to Avignon, which soon resulted in two popes vying for authenticity, the other of course from Rome.  Succeeding popes continued the dispute, dubbed the Western or Papal Schism (sometimes misnamed the Great Schism, confused with the final split between the Catholic and Orthodox churches in 1054), and a serious attempt to resolve the issue occurred with a church council in 1409.  As usual with religious disputes, the attempt to merge two factions into one only resulted in splitting them into three.  Another attempt eventually succeeded after the Council of Constance in 1414, which secured the resignations of Gregory XII of Rome and John XXIII (no, not that one, this one) of Pisa in 1415 and excommunicated the Spanish Benedict XIII of Avignon.  Benedict refused to acknowledge the decision and hung on with some Spanish and Scottish support (he is oddly responsible for the creation of St Andrews University), and he was in turn succeeded, in almost comic fashion, by two successive "hidden popes" both named Benedict XIV (you cannot make this stuff up) and the opposing Clement VIII who finally threw in the towel in 1429, recognizing Martin V as the one true pope.  Today's church acknowledges only the Roman popes as legitimate, with the others being labelled as antipopes.)

There are a number of 'firsts' associated with his elevation, and all are indications of the direction he will take.

He is the first non-European pope since Gregory III (d 741), who was born in Syria, and who in his disputes with the Emperor in Constantinople helped set the stage for the later watershed event of the crowning of Charlemagne, King of the Franks, as the Holy Roman Emperor in 800.  This connection to Gregory III has no real impact, but much is made of the fact that he is from outside of Europe.  Commentators in this regard fail to note the armed conquest of Asia Minor and North Africa by the Arab Umayyad Muslims, nor the fact that the concept of Europe was not a distinct concept in contemporary minds, recognizing at the time only different sections of the steadily deteriorating Roman Empire.  There is more to this than meets the eye though: Benedict XVI tended to reverse the trend begun by his predecessor John Paul II to internationalize the College of Cardinals, with Benedict appointing a larger proportion of cardinals from Europe and particularly Italy.  Due to the history of how the College has been structured and how cardinals were developed, Italy has always held an enormous amount of power within the Church (some 25% of the cardinals, electors and otherwise, are Italian), and there were rumblings that a return to a 'traditional' Italian pope was in order (the Polish John Paul II broke that 455-year trend).  With Francis, this could partially be a compromise on that score – a first-generation Argentine from an Italian family.

The Pontifex Maximus has taken the name Francis, after the teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi.  He is not Pope Francis I, just Pope Francis.  The title of Francis I will not be used until such time as there is a Pope Francis II, just as there is no need to assign numbers to many previous popes such as Vitalian, Fabian, Formosus, Constantine or Lando, or for that matter Peter (perhaps comparing one to Saint Peter would be a bit too presumptuous). 

Much is made of the original Francis' dedication to a sense of living in poverty but the emphasis is on a dedication to the poor, the area of 'social justice'.  It is expected by the media punditry that this will mean a focus on the issue as they define it, concomitant (of course) with the Progressive/Obama move of 'soaking the rich'.  I believe that Francis, though, has a different take on the subject – that we should all undertake a life of simplicity, austerity and humility, as opposed to the Commentariat of the Left who preach the topic as a political means for "fundamental transformation" to their benefit while still holding the reins, trappings, and benefits of political control.  The Left should be careful of what they wish for.  Facts about the original Francis that should be kept in mind is that not only was he the founder of the Franciscans, but he also returned from his journies to lead a very thorough reformation of the order.  St Francis is also known as one who took a very personal interest in confronting the Muslims of his time, leading a two-man delegation to parley with the Sultan of Egypt for several days, in order to lift the Saracen seige of Damietta.

Francis is also the first Jesuit pope, from the Society of Jesus founded by St Ignatius Loyola, with its history of being rigorous "warrior scholars", dedicated to restoring and solidifying the Church teachings and doctrine of the last two thousand years against the pop sociology of the last four decades.  He has already staked his claim in a very open way with the Kirchner dynasty in Argentina (Nestor and wife Cristina [Fernández de] Kirchner have alternated the presidency of Argentina since 2003) over the issues of gay marriage and political revenge of the lingering 'Dirty War' of los desaparecidos between the military junta and the Marxist guerilla movement in Argentina between 1976 and 1983.  As the first Jesuit pope, we should already know that the Left will not find him a political vacillator, bending to the what they decide is the popular desire of the moment.

One further note that has been passed over in the reportage is Francis' reference of the papal title of "Servant of the Servants", which entered the list of titles by way of Pope Gregory I, or St Gregory the Great.  This Gregory was a major reformer of the church of his time (590-604) who truly earned his honorific title.

So, with both direct and subtle references to St Francis, St Ignatius Loyola, and St Gregory the Great, I fully expect that we will be in for a time of some no-nonsense reformation.

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