Pope Francis’ down-to-earth style has been stirring debate from the moment he stood on the balcony at St. Peter’s, bowed his head, and asked the faithful for their prayers.Now, some five months into his papacy, the Holy Father’s modus operandi has become a genuine source of division among Catholics, with some asserting that the pope’s casual comportment is a breath of fresh air, while others lament as harmful the absence of papal formality.
I stand among those in the latter group and will attempt herein to explain those concerns.
First, however, let’s just agree to dispense with the foolish notion that Pope Francis’ distaste for the externals of the office suggest that he is Pontifex Humilis Maximus; a pope of never-before-seen humility.
While all indications are that Jorge Bergoglio is a remarkably unassuming man with a heart for the poor, Pope Francis is no more humble than many of his predecessors, including those popes who traversed St. Peter’s Square on the sedia gestatoria accompanied by flabella bearing attendants, and who reigned from the papal throne in golden-threaded vestments.
Recently, a friend of mine who admits to being rather charmed by the pope’s “every man” demeanor offered what he thought was the quintessential biblical defense, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This verse speaks to the situation at hand well, but it begs some important questions that my friend, and apparently many others, have never thought to ask.
What exactly does it mean to be “exalted” by the Lord? Must we assume that all such exaltation is consigned to the hereafter? Does not the Lord at times exalt His people in the present age as well, and when he does, would not humility prevent us from burying that treasure?
Most of us, it seems, tend to think of the exaltation of the humble as a heavenly reality alone, but the well-formed Catholic, with an appropriate awareness of the degree to which life in the Church Militant participates in that of the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant, immediately recognizes such a view as deficient.
We encounter this reality most profoundly in the Church’s liturgy and her sacraments, and this necessarily points to the priesthood.
True humility, all but the most nominal of Catholics would agree, demands that the priest know and accept who he is; both his diminutive status as creature, and his unspeakable greatness as one who, by grace, may act in persona Christi, thereby projecting a compelling image to others of He who wills to draw all men to Himself.
By contrast, the priest who presents to the world only that lowliness that is shared by all risks depriving the flock of a great gift that ultimately is intended for all, including those who do not as yet know Christ.
With this in mind, it is reasonable to understand, as the aforementioned Scripture verse suggests, that he who is truly humble will allow himself to be exalted by the Lord who raises up the lowly.
In accepting his elevation to the Chair of St. Peter, Jorge Bergoglio has allowed himself to be exalted by the Lord in a most unique way. Among men, there is no greater position on earth, no appointment more praiseworthy, no seat of authority more majestic; all as a reflection of the Lord’s greatness, His worthiness and His majesty.
The humble pope, one may rightly argue, will not only recognize and embrace the gratuitous gift he has been given, he will allow it to shine, like a light on a lampstand for all to see, not for his own glory, but so that others might join him in glorifying the goodness of the Lord.
The Roman Pontiff who chooses to shun the outward signs that are associated with his exalted office risks becoming a light under a bushel; unnecessarily casting a shadow on the solitary path to salvation that the Lord has given us.
It is with all of this in mind that many in the Church, including me, are troubled to see Pope Francis behave in the ways of an affable parish priest. Yes, God knows we need generous, kindly and approachable pastors, but from the Roman Pontiff, we need much more than that, indeed, the world needs more than that.
In fairness, we must admit that Pope Francis isn’t exactly moving about in altogether uncharted territory; rather, he is simply following the trail that was blazed by the Second Vatican Council, the same upon which Pope Paul VI set foot the day he relinquished the triregnum (the triple tiara).
With the promulgation of Dignitatis Humanae at Vatican II in 1965, the Council Fathers tacitly denied the Social Kingship of Christ, and it is this more than anything else that set the stage for future popes who think nothing of shying away from the signs and symbols of their own sovereignty.
As I often do, I feel compelled to point to Quas Primas, one of the most tragically forgotten encyclicals of the pre-conciliar age, for clarity.
In this great encyclical, Pope Pius XI gave to the entire Church, including future popes, a properly balanced image of Jesus Christ who came to serve, as well as the Sovereign Lord to whom belongs “the title and the power of King” (Quas Primas – 7).
Pius XI tells us that the title of King belongs to Christ, not simply as the Creator whom the Jews recognize as Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King, “but as man in the strict and proper sense too. For it is only as man that he may be said to have received from the Father ‘power and glory and a kingdom,’ since the Word of God, as consubstantial with the Father, has all things in common with him, and therefore has necessarily supreme and absolute dominion over all things created” (Quas Primas – 7).
The encyclical goes on to engender an appreciation for the one Divine person, Jesus Christ, who was both humble enough to wash the feet of those unworthy to bind His sandals, and yet bold enough to take “the opportunity to call himself King, confirming the title publicly, and solemnly proclaiming that all power was given him in heaven and on earth, words that can only be taken to indicate the greatness of his power, the infinite extent of his kingdom” (Quas Primas – 11).
Our Blessed Lord is not simply Humilis Maximus, He is also Sempiternus Rex, Eternal King, and it is an awareness of the latter that is most especially needed in this age wherein religious indifferentism runs wild.
“Random acts of kindness” are but the stock and trade of the secular humanists; good deeds sugarcoated with generic Christian platitudes, the franchise of the Protestants. Each, with no small degree of success, has been leading souls away from the Catholic Church virtually unopposed by bishops, including those of Rome, who rarely call anyone to conversion.
Over the last five decades, the Church has all-too-often behaved, and appeared to many, as just another player in this marketplace of man, even as the humanists, heretics, and assorted other lost souls of the world are busily seeking, without even realizing it, Christ the most benevolent of Kings.
This is precisely why a pope who is willing to strike His Majesty’s image is so desperately needed.