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Francis the Wonderful

2013 was quite a year for Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Elected in March after the surprise resignation of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Francis has taken the world by storm. It started as soon he stepped out onto the balcony to be introduced to the world as Pope Francis, when he eschewed the papal mozzetta and put on the traditional papal stole only when he was ready to bless the crowds. Even his choice of papal name was a jaw-dropper, being the first time a pope had chosen the name of the Poor Man of Assisi.

As the year progressed, Pope Francis continued to show the world that he is at heart a consecrated religious; he is the first consecrated religious to be elected pope since Gregory XVI (1831–1846) and the first Jesuit pope ever. He paid his own pre-conclave hotel bill (notable because consecrated religious must not have personal debt); he chose simpler vestments and papal clothing than predecessors; he chose to live in the Domus Sanctae Marthae rather than the papal apartments so that he could maintain a communal life. He rode a bus with the cardinals after the election, and chose an old car over the papal Mercedes.

Then there were some bigger surprises. Pope Francis sat down for an interview with his brother Jesuits and stunned the world when he called upon Catholics to move beyond devotion to “small-minded rules.” When asked about homosexuals during an interview on the papal plane, he asked a flabbergasted press corps, “Who am I to judge?” During another interview, a crusty atheist journalist neglected to use the tools of his trade—namely a recorder and notepad—and ended up reporting the interview from memory. Of course, the published interview ended up being entirely unreliable, but not once during the brouhaha that followed did Pope Francis humiliate the journalist by personally disputing words attributed to him.

Pope Francis also found ways to maintain contact with ordinary people. He personally called his newspaper deliveryman in Argentina to cancel delivery. Then he cold-called all sorts of people who wrote to him with their concerns: the family of a murder victim, a young woman being pressured to abort her child, a rape victim, a Traditionalist writer who had criticized Francis. He posed for a “selfie” with young people, put on a red nose for a newly married couple who had met while working in clown therapy, allowed a little boy to sit on the papal throne during a talk, and placed souvenirs from World Youth Day on an altar as a thanksgiving.

The world fell in love. And now, at the end of the year, we are seeing the accolades roll in. TIME named Pope Francis its Person of the Year. So also did The Advocate, a homosexual advocacy periodical, which gave its nod to Pope Francis over and above Edie Windsor, whose case against the United States was responsible for dismantling the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Even the men’s magazine Esquire got in on the action, naming Pope Francis its Best Dressed Man of 2013.

Not only did media outlets take notice, so have lapsed Catholics and non-Catholics. I can’t tell you how many lapsed Catholics, alienated Catholics, and non-Catholics I have seen on Facebook praising Pope Francis and expressing interest in the Church. Priests and bishops have reported that people from all walks of life approach them specifically so as to express their love for the Pope. There have been reports of a Francis Effect that is causing a rise in Mass attendance around the world. Groups like the Pew Research Center have claimed that this isn’t the case, but a religious brother explained to me that it is possible that the study is based on faulty premises. In the U.S., Mass attendance is tabulated by envelopes in the collection basket; in other parts of the world, they count noses in the pews at Sunday Mass.

All in all, it is good news that the world loves the Pope, you might think. And so welcome after more than a decade of the world spitting on popes and the Catholic Church.

If you think so, then God bless you, and stay away from Catholic cyberspace—sometimes known, both affectionately and pejoratively, as St. Blog’s Parish. There, the Francis Effect has been looked upon with agitation, alarm, and even revulsion. There are plenty of devout Catholics who are angered that the world loves Pope Francis and have seen it as cause for concern about Francis’s orthodoxy.

Denouncing this “cult of Francis” has become a popular sport among Catholic bloggers and commentators. A Traditionalist writer recently wrote:

Rave reviews in The New York Times (“Francis Sets Down Goals for an inclusive Church”), USA Today (“Francis Calls for Big Changes in the Roman Catholic Church”), The Los Angeles Times (“Pope Francis Calls for Decentralized Church in Manifesto”) and Fox News (“How Pope Francis is reenergizing the Catholic Church: New pontiff celebrated by liberal Catholics”) are typical of the latest eruption of liberal rapture over Francis the Wonderful. The liberal media love [Evangelii Gaudium] even more than Francis’s scattered utterances in other forums, including the infamous [Eugenio] Scalfari interview, finally removed from the Vatican website after it became too hot to handle, but without the Pope retracting a single word of it. Small wonder: EG develops the same themes Francis related to Scalfari.

Notice that the writer is not only upset by the world’s admiration for Pope Francis but strings in some barbs against the Pope himself, calling the Pope “Francis the Wonderful” in an obviously pejorative tone and implying that silence over the interview with Eugenio Scalfari indicates papal approval of all that Scalfari wrote. (A more charitable assumption might have been, as mentioned earlier, that the Pope did not want to directly humiliate an elderly man—he’s nearly 90 years old—who already has significant disagreements with the Church.)

Unfortunately, it is not just lay Catholics who are speaking of the Francis Effect in problematic terms. A popular priest blogger recently created a line of merchandise to sell to Catholics who want to identify themselves as the “self-absorbed promethean neopelagians” Pope Francis expressed concern over in his recent apostolic exhortation (EG 94). Whenever Pope Francis does or says something that causes alarm for this priest or his readers, he has taken to repeating over and over—almost in mantra-like terms—that “former-Father Greg Reynolds is still excommunicated [at the direction of Francis].”

One would think, reading these commentators, that a pope had never before been beloved by the unwashed masses. But in an article on the phenomenon of the papal cult of personality, Scott Richert observed that this phenomenon did not begin with Francis:

I happen to think that the modern papacy has indeed been characterized by a cult of personality, but the “modern papacy” is not confined to the popes from Francis back to John Paul II, or even John XXIII. The cult of personality surrounding the popes extends back at least to the early 20th century, and arguably to Pope Pius IX, the longest-reigning (1846–78) pope and the father of the First Vatican Council. Elected at a time not too dissimilar to ours, when many thought that the Catholic Church was on her way to the dustbin of history, Pius confounded the expectations of those who thought he would be the last pope, and he did so largely through the force of his personality.

Even more disturbing in my opinion is that many of these same commentators are eager for the day when the world “turns” on Francis. Evidently they want the world to hate the Pope. That Catholics could desire such a thing is, in my opinion, a far more frightening possibility than that the world loves the Pope. As Fr. Paul Scalia noted about the “Church Belligerent”:

These habits of the Church Belligerent have a deadly effect on the soul of the soldier himself. He becomes the casualty of his own battles. The constant war footing makes him resemble poor Ishmael: “a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him” (Gen. 16:12). From this comes a certain hardening of the heart. The ceaseless complaining and griping is the spiritual equivalent of cholesterol. And the refusal to extend charity to others results in an inability to receive love from God.

In my opinion, Catholics should find joy in how the world has embraced Pope Francis. Like seed scattered over all types of soil, some seed will take root and bring souls to Christ and his Church, while other seed will fall on shallow ground to wither and die (cf. Matt. 13:1–9). But it is not for us to determine where the seed is scattered, or whether or not it will take root. That’s God’s business, not ours (cf. 1 Cor. 3:6–7).

If you are feeling nervous about the current fascination the world has for Pope Francis, perhaps you might want to reflect on what happened when Christ’s disciples sought to shoo away those who found Christ attractive:

Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people; but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:13–14).

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