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A statue of Pope Francis? Perhaps a miscalculation!

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 10, 2013

The Pope has asked for the immediate removal of a statue erected in his honor at his old cathedral in Buenos Aires. One understands his concern. This is no time for immortalizing churchmen in statues while they are still alive, or perhaps even after they are dead. Let’s just say that this is not the way of the Church of the poor.

After all, at some point we need to take seriously the point Pope Francis has been trying so hard to make for most of his life as a priest, including his pontificate to date. Essentially he has been arguing that the Church cannot convert the world anew as long as it stands on ceremony, by which I mean as long as it relies on a system of institutional honors and benefits. Such a system grew all too naturally (which is not to say supernaturally) with the Church’s success. It was a natural outgrowth of the love and respect of a Catholic civilization. But because of our human weakness, such success has bred a sort of virulent clericalism—a sense of careerism, entitlement and expected deference which lacks meaning in a civilization which no longer relates to the Church in a positive way.

It is almost as if the ecclesiastical mansion has become a prison.

Now please do not misunderstand me. One does not fault good men who have inherited a certain system and worked faithfully, selflessly and effectively within it. But it is very clear from the past several hundred years of Western history that the presumption of ecclesiastical order, clerical position, and priestly guidance is now almost completely lacking in cultural traction. Priests and religious—and the Catholic laity—cannot make progress by clinging to the old forms of spiritual precedence and the old reminders that, after all, the Church is right and so ought to be honored for it. In today’s world, a bishop can no more expect to enlarge the Church through the trappings of his office than a layman can hope to establish a Christian order through a calling (in Russell Shaw’s fine phrase) to “hunt, to shoot and to entertain.”

What we need is laity, religious, priests and bishops who are on fire for the Gospel and ready to address the world through the raw power of the Gospel alone. What we need are deeply committed spiritual leaders who are less concerned about the recognition of their roles and more concerned to provide the Christian service the world so desperately needs. This, for example, is what George Weigel means when he talks about a more evangelical Catholicism. More importantly, this is what Pope Francis means when he decries careerism and insists on taking on the “odor of the sheep”. This is the difference between running a program from the safety of the chancery or the rectory and taking on a whole new way of life.

Ultimately, of course, many different styles of leadership can work. Holiness is the key, and holiness will dictate some aspects of personal style, but not all. Nonetheless, this pope has made a point of getting at holiness by shaking up our understanding of clerical status. He has made a point of insisting that all of us get down to the business of being ambassadors for Christ not just among the dwindling numbers of the converted, but among the real people in real situations throughout the world who are dying of spiritual poverty.

One can understand the desire of the Pope’s supporters in Buenos Aires to raise a statue in his honor. I am certain that on one level the Pope appreciates their devotion. But statues are not the response this Pope is looking for.

Caution: Holy Spirit at Work

More to the point, statues are not the response Christ is looking for, and He seems to have chosen this Providential moment in history for the Holy Spirit to tell us that the faded glory of the old order must give way to the burning dedication of the new. We have been saying for years that lay Catholics can assume nothing, that they must act as if the conversion of the world is up to them, and that they must seek constantly to transform all things in Christ. But if this is the new condition of the laity in the aftermath of the old Christian order, what must this mean for priests and bishops?

It seems to be the special mission of Pope Francis to teach us by example what this means, to insist that priests and bishops untether themselves as much as possible from sinecures and institutional supports in order, as Pope John Paul II famously said before him, to “put out into the deep” (Lk 5:4). Perhaps only when we have let go of the rope that holds us to the dock, and our feet can no longer touch bottom, can all of us begin once again to fill our nets to the breaking point. Those longing for safe harbors will always render the bark of Peter useless.

To some extent, I know, these are just vague words. We are beginning to get an inkling of what it means for the Church to have a new Springtime, and of what the New Evangelization demands. But we are still groping for the patterns and forms which will be the specific agents of transformation, so that a great many of us can follow where a few leaders dare to go. These new patterns and forms cannot sacrifice anything of the Church’s essence. But so many of the old forms and patterns are not of the Church’s essence; they have simply come down to us from a time in which the marriage of Catholicism and culture made the Church a worldly institutional success.

Surely much of what passes for Catholic business as usual must change. The old wineskins are at the breaking point, if they have not already burst. The wine of Christ’s blood, the wine of the Gospel, is ever new, and we are in desperate need of new skins. Or to say it more precisely, we are in desperate need of becoming new skins, of being shaped and stretched by Christ so that we might dispense His infinite mercies to the world.

Is this not what Pope Francis tries almost every day to say to us? Truly, those who made him a statue misjudged their man.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: mateskub8508 - Jul. 13, 2013 2:14 AM ET USA

    Not to mention that the statue is quite ugly.

  • Posted by: Cornelius - Jul. 11, 2013 6:31 AM ET USA

    Very good, Jeff, but what are the "old forms and patterns" that we should jettison? Your confidence that we can adequately discern useless accretion from the Church's essence has the whiff of the sort of hubris that gave us the post-Vatican II chaos. It's not that it can't be done, it's that it requires enormous caution, humility,and an instinctively conservative temperament.

  • Posted by: Vincit omnia amor - Jul. 10, 2013 9:43 PM ET USA

    Now that's universal and immediate authority for you!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 10, 2013 8:21 PM ET USA

    All things must be ordered and directed to an end. The Church is no exception, and hers is unique among all institutions. She transcends the temporal. The Church must project a certain permanence that not only transcends reality, but bears witness to it when no one else cares. The corruption, hubris, predation, etc must go. But a Church of the Poor is not without its own clear and present dangers in a world that resists the transcendent. May the Most Holy Trinity guide our Holy Father.

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