Every pope has his strengths and weaknesses. After all, popes (and indeed every bishop and religious leader) are like all of us, ‘graced sinners’.
For we only have one Saviour, Jesus of Nazareth.
And therefore, in any authentic Catholic understanding of the Petrine ministry, there is certainly no place for ‘papolatry’.
And so, yes of course, we do need a variety of theologians and voices from differing theological perspectives to engage with the thought and ministry of Pope Francis and offer respectful assessments.
Massimo Faggioli, the Italian (now USA based) historian and theologian, stands out these days for his insightful analysis of the contemporary church (in this regard see the perceptive analysis of Faggioli’s views here.)
Faggioli shows precisely why free speech in the Church is very necessary. That is why Pope Francis himself has often called us to speak with “parrhesia” – to speak with frankness and forthrightness.
However, in contrast, there is no place for the mean-spirited and vicious attacks that in recent years been conducted against Pope Francis, in a scandalous attempt to destroy his pontificate. These critics need to be unmasked and their real motivations exposed.
Fortunately for us all, Christopher Lamb has done just that. In his brilliant new book, The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Catholic Church (Orbis, 2020) the British journalist based in Rome for the The Tablet provides us with a gripping narrative of these forces of malicious ‘opposition’.
They mainly emanate from a small group of so-called ‘orthodox’, well-financed Catholics in the USA. Sadly, they have a few fellow travellers here in Australia.
Although only a tiny minority of Catholics, they are ‘hell-bent’ at doing everything they can to undermine the current Successor of Peter.
It's no criticism of Francis to observe that he was already elderly – and preparing for retirement in Buenos Aires! – in 2013.
He himself expected a short pontificate, maybe 3/4 years.
Now, in 8th year of pontificate, it shouldn't surprise anyone that he has notably less energy.
— Kevin O'Higgins, S.J. (@kevinohigginssj) April 18, 2020
Another voice of wisdom and balance who complements Christopher Lamb’s analysis is the Irish Jesuit Kevin O’Higgins. Long a missionary in Paraguay, Fr O’Higgins recently stunningly articulated the gifts the Holy Spirit has given us all in the Petrine ministry of Pope Francis.
His Twitter thread on this topic deserves to be quoted because of its great insights into Pope Francis:
“It’s no criticism of Francis to observe that he was already elderly – and preparing for retirement in Buenos Aires! – in 2013. He himself expected a short pontificate, maybe 3/4 years. Now, in 8th year of pontificate, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he has notably less energy.
“It should also be noted that, while Jorge Bergoglio was conspicuously close to the poor & a promoter of Argentinian-style ‘theology of the faithful People of God’, he was never a European-style ‘liberal’.
“To the extent that the entire world is currently in crisis, it could be said that Francis’ pontificate is no exception. But apart from covid19 circumstances, I believe his pontificate is actually quite robust and achieving as much as anyone could reasonably expect of him.
“He is probably more surprised than anyone to find himself in the eighth year of his pontificate. But he is surely very aware of advancing years and declining energy. He probably see himself – rightly, I believe – as managing a transition.
“Apart from his growing influence on the composition of the College of Cardinals and, therefore, the choice of his successor, I would highlight several hugely significant and, I believe lasting, achievements of Pope Francis.”
Kevin O’Higgin SJ goes on to identify some key strengths of Pope Francis’s Petrine ministry (so far):
- Re-emphasising importance of Vatican II as map for Church’s way forward
- Critique of clericalism & Roman Curia elitism
- Unambiguous option for poor & most vulnerable
- Call for Church to escape confines of buildings & engage with ‘post-Christian’ street.
- Use of synodality as key element of Church governance, rather than a side-show.
- Emphasis on importance of discernment
- Highlighting need for processes, rather than isolated acts, as instruments of lasting, long term change
- An effort to address the deep, hidden causes of abuse & corruption in the Church, rather than simply firefighting their tragic consequences The list could easily be extended.
And finally, Fr O’Higgins ends with these sage words:
“My point is that the enormous significance of pontificate of Pope Francis is self-evident. The really key question is who/what will come later.
“In order to fully implement the ‘Francis programme’ of renewal & reform, it will be necessary to have a similarly-minded, younger Pope.
“In fact, it will probably take several similarly-minded Popes, with sufficient drive & energy to oversee a decades-long process, to steer the Church along the path indicated by Vatican II. I don’t perceive a pontificate in crisis. I certainly see a Church – and, indeed, a world – faced with critical choices. Pope Francis continues to play an essential role by identifying & articulating many of the key issues facing both Church & world.
“It’s a lonely mission!”
As we Australian Catholics continue our pilgrimage of faith let’s continue to support, love and respect Pope Francis. Yes, being pope is a lonely mission!
Thank God for our Pope Francis as he is a special gift of the Holy Spirit to us all in these trying times.
And thank God for wise pastoral theologians like Fr Kevin O’Higgins SJ who give us much encouragement and hope.
Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications in the Diocese of Parramatta and the Pope Francis Fellow, Newman College, University of Melbourne.