Brendan Hoban: Ten reasons why Francis became my hero
Western People 14.3.2023
Pope Francis at 86 celebrated 10 years as pope last Sunday.
Ten years ago, as I watched on television his first appearance as pope on the balcony of St Peter’s in Rome, my heart sank. I’d never heard of him up to then and at 76 he looked old, very old. If he had the words ‘Caretaker Pope’ written across his chest on his new white soutane, it couldn’t have been clearer that he was merely expected to keep the throne of St Peter warm for a few years for a more active successor.
How wrong I was!
I remember trying to cheer myself up by imagining that he might turn out to be a John XXIII figure who seemed a caretaker pope when he was appointed but ended up calling the Second Vatican Council. Could Francis become another old man in a hurry to get things done? Could lightning strike twice? Unlikely, I thought.
So to celebrate Francis’ ten extraordinary years as pope let me give TEN REASONS why Francis became my hero to such a degree that, God willing, I pray that he may live happily and healthily to continue his great work.
My mother, God rest her, loved Pope John. Even before his election, she had commented on his warm smile in a line-up of possible popes in the Sunday Press. And Francis hasn’t, even in the midst of his woes, stopped smiling in ten years except when he has to stand for a photograph with people who didn’t impress him, like Donald Trump. Francis, in the warmth of his personality and in his engaging and reassuring presence, invariably has brought a humanity and an empathy to bear on his numerous dealings with others. He has taught Catholicism to begin to smile again.
- Mercy not fear.
Catholics of my vintage remember a time when fear was the dominant theme in Catholicism. ‘You couldn’t move at all’, John O’Donohue famously wrote, ‘without committing some sin’. And the practice was based on the belief that people could be scared into Heaven through fear of Hell. Still enduring in the minds of some elderly Catholics is a level of acute distress and scrupulosity from that sin-obsessed teaching and preaching. Francis has brought God’s mercy back into centre stage.
- Child abuse scandals.
It took time to drag the Vatican and the Church to deal with the toxic reality of clerical child abuse. Some found it hard to imagine that it happened at all, others too worried about what the revelations were doing to the reputation of the Church and some imagining that somehow it might all go away. Eventually Francis placed a focus on the victims, as he did on his visit to Ireland. A lot done, more to do.
- The poor
At the conclave that elected him, when the votes were announced, a cardinal sitting beside him whispered to him, ‘Don’t forget the poor’. The cardinal was pushing an open door because Francis hit the ground running in constantly reminding Catholics in word, in deed and in symbolic ways that the real test of our Christian faith is our care of the poor.
- Field hospital.
Francis has a telling ability to present a simple image as a way of helping everyone to understand the point he’s making. As on the day he mentioned that the Church was ‘a field hospital’ where those bruised and broken are cared for and rehabilitated. It set in relief the image of a huge impersonal institution in danger of losing its way by missing the wood from the trees.
- Vatican Two revisited
After the Council, the vision of Vatican Two was almost airbrushed out of existence. A restoration policy attempted to revisit the old by sidelining the new. But Francis was adamant that a Council of the Church – the highest teaching in the Catholic world, with its teaching voted through often by 90% plus of the world’s bishops – could not be cast aside indefinitely. Even by popes.
- Vatican One revisited
A running sore in the Church, pre-Francis, was the arrogance of a Vatican elite who were out of control, dictating matters beyond their remit and known for lecturing their canonical superiors and focussing on building their own careers. From his first meeting with them, Francis indicated that he intended to limit the influence and status of the cossetted denizens of ‘Vatican One’. In his sometimes gruff style, spades were called spades.
- Widening the tent.
This is Francis himself telling us that in the Catholic Church every baptised person is included and should feel included. And if they are not included or don’t feel included we have to widen the tent and make space for them. For example, Francis has supported LGBTQ+ people who, in recent memory, were described by a pope as ‘intrinsically disordered’, and from the day he made his famous comment – ‘Who am I to judge?’ – Francis has sought to bring them (and others) out of the shadows and the margins back into the centre of the Church.
From day one the message from Francis was that the ordained should lead simple lives. And he didn’t just talk the talk but walked the walk in the example of his own life: in carrying his own case rather than getting an assistant to do it; in taking the Vatican bus instead of the Lamborghini presented to him; in opting to live in a B&B rather than the papal palace; in his disapproval of the pandemic of monsignors by limiting such laurels; by appointing as bishops priests in parishes rather than theologians in universities; and by appointing bishops as cardinals from around the world from ordinary dioceses rather than from city dioceses in Europe and the USA.
This is the new way of being Church where a synodal approach – Catholics listening to one another, discussing issues together, deciphering what God wants and deciding together. Francis says it is the way of the Church for the future.
May God give him the strength to deliver it.
Thank you, Fr. Hoban! Your ten paragraphs sum up Pope Francis beautifully, the man and his work. Your words have given me a lift.
“Back then everything was covered up.”
This is Pope Francis, as reported in the Argentinian news outlet La Nacion, commenting on recent reports from Poland that in his time as Archbishop of Kracow (1964-78), St Pope John Paul II had covered up instances of clerical sexual abuse of children.
Pope Francis reportedly insisted that whatever his predecessor had done must be “interpreted with the hermeneutics of the respective time.”
But whose ‘hermeneutics’ of the time – those of typical churchmen of the time – irrespective of the likely ‘hermeneutics’ (i.e. the interpretive perspective) of the victims of abuse and their families?
Asked recently on an ACI Zoom event about the impact of secrecy re abuse on families, Archbishop Eamon Martin referred to ‘sin in the hearts of people in the church, including leaders in the church, that blinded them to the suffering of the most innocent (which) is still in need of healing’.
This is a far more promising approach to the ‘reckoning’ on the abuse issue called for by the Irish national synodal synthesis published in August 2022: to admit frankly that a past administrative ‘hermeneutic’, however widely shared, could be blinkered and even sinful. It would be a huge tragedy if the ongoing universal synod were to culminate in a defence of the hermeneutic that justified the cover up – especially when it is remembered that this cover up and hermeneutic ended only when affected families brought their stories to secular courts and media, beginning in Louisiana, USA in 1984.
We need to get our heads around the conundrum that a past pope justly seen as heroic in Poland’s terrifying struggle for freedom under soviet oppression was also and at the same time applying an unjust ‘hermeneutic’ re clerical abuse that was, under very different skies, about to be disgraced – to the everlasting benefit of Catholic children, families and the church.
Let’s hope that the bishops meeting in Rome in the autumns of 2023 and 2024 can rise to this.
And WOMEN?… No mention of them…
Happy Feast of the Annunciation and world day of prayer for women’s ordination.