I will admit to an immediate apprehension when the media takes an especial liking to a particular Catholic bishop or even the pope. I am even more apprehensive when I see a prelate “ham it up” for the cameras, never miss an opportunity to speak to some media outlet, or look like he is taking a bit too much pleasure in sipping a cocktail with a local politician or big-wig businessman. I have the opposite reaction, when I see a priest unassumingly have a beer with some dock workers (ala’ Karl Malden in On the Waterfront) or load up a Ford F-150 with some cut wood to bring to a family with 15 kids in his parish. Pope Francis seems to be in the latter category and that’s why I like him so much. Of course, as the common Father to us all and as a head of state he necessarily has to mingle with the power elite, but it’s obvious to me that he prefers associating with those who don’t merit admission to that club.
The great thing about Pope Francis is that he eschews any “club” other than that of Christ and His Church. This is why secular people don’t get him. It is continually interesting to see the political terms “right” and “left” being applied to the Church and to the pope. But Francis defies these designations in a most interesting way. I saw an article last week from a blog entitled The African Distributist that in a few words captured the “radicalism of Pope Francis.”
“Radicalism” for the media and the current power elites is a time-bound term that refers to the mid-1960s to the early 1970s where so-called women’s rights, civil rights, and anti-authoritarianism were the order of the day. I would suggest that the common thread with all of these movements then and in their current incarnations is an intentional breaking with tradition and a practical atheism. This is not to say that there weren’t injustices brought to light by these movements that in some cases needed to be remedied; but the movements, as a whole, had as their aim the uprooting of the common inheritance of the West. As proof of this philosophical, cultural, and religious non serviam we see these people call themselves “radical”—which is anything but getting back to the roots of things. Rather it is a chronological snobbery of the most recent vintage.
For the more thoughtful, the realization of injustices to be remedied did not mean the overthrow of the past. Indeed, it may mean the pruning of the tree of tradition from alien entanglements that have attached themselves, but it did not mean cutting it down. “Radicalism,” as any intelligent and tradition-minded individual will understand, means getting to the root of things. For Pope Francis it means very simply—getting to the bare-bones truth of man and his relationship to God. “When the Son of Man comes, will He find any faith left on the earth?” A sobering question. The Holy Father, in taking a less academic tack than his predecessors, is showing a “radicalism” as to the most fundamental questions of our existence. In this he shows himself to be a true son of St. Ignatius.
The first and fundamental starting point for St. Ignatius in his spiritual teaching is that “man was created to know, love, and serve God in this world so as to be happy with Him forever in the next.” As a corollary, all created realities are to help man achieve this goal—if they do not, they are to be removed. As St. Ignatius says: “We are to use creatures insofar as they help us attain our eternal end, and we are to be rid of them insofar as they prove a hindrance on our road to salvation.”
Pope Francis speaks like an old parish priest to his parishioners and, as Ignatius advises, he is radically unconcerned with what people think of him or the material pomps of the papacy. In characterizing him this way, I am not comparing him to his predecessors or criticizing his predecessors. Far from it. I rather see a pope, steeped in a time-tested and time-honored tradition of spirituality playing it out on a grand scale as the Vicar of Christ in an age that needs it more than previous ones. Furthermore, in practicing this radical indifference, he allows himself to—in the words of the Baptist—“decrease, while Christ increases.”
As this Pope has unsettled the more traditional elements of the Church, perhaps he is doing them a service. Perhaps he is showing the way that our faith is in Christ, not modern comforts or an idealized notion of the Church’s prestige and power. A pope who has gotten to roots is the one who speaks simply and clearly on the following: the necessity to be humble before Christ; the necessity of keeping both Christ and His Church at the center of our lives; the necessity of intercession of Our Lady; and the necessity to realize that our lives are a cosmic battle between Our Blessed Lord and the Devil. One doesn’t get more fundamental, nay, traditional than that. In this lies Pope Francis’s radicalism.
Perhaps the reason why people don’t understand the pope is because they’re not traditional enough.