At mass yesterday, you could feel something intangible in the air. Not to go all Peggy Noonan on you, but I sensed both hope and apprehension about the new Pope – as well as a certain distance. Under Benedict, many of us had continued with our faith as if underground, seeing little to connect to in his fastidious liturgy and tone-deafness and weak authoritarianism. Traumatized by the hierarchy’s response to the child-rape epidemic, we clung to our pews with whiter knuckles than usual, reminding ourselves that the church is not its hierarchy, but the people of God seeking the love Jesus promised and the freedom Christianity can unleash in the soul. But we would look up at times to the public leadership, wincing mostly, but still gleaning some nourishment (Deus Caritas Est, for example), before succumbing to anger at the crimes not acknowledged let alone brought to justice, at the hypocrisy and wealth and corruption, at the scandal of a creature like Maciel and a coward named Law.
But now, more heads are poking up a little, like the stubs of new tulips in the softening ground. In the last few days, we’ve found out some more about Francis, and much of it, to my mind, is reassuring. This piece by the usually judicious Thomas Reese relieved me of many worries about his time under the junta. There is no question that Francis was not a profile in courage or an aggressive dissenter in those times, but neither, I think, is it fair to see him as in any fundamental way a collaborator or betrayer of his own priests. Reese goes through the charges methodically. One worth noting:
It is said there is written evidence in the Argentine foreign ministry files that Bergoglio gave information on the Jesuits to the military. The alleged conversation took place when Bergoglio was trying to get the passport of one of the Jesuits extended. Not only did this take place after they were arrested and after they were released, it was after they were safely out of the country. Nothing he could say would endanger them, nor was he telling the government anything it did not already know. He was simply trying to convince a bureaucrat that it was a good idea to extend the passport of this man so he could stay in Germany and not have to return to Argentina.
More recently, Cardinal Bergoglio was involved in getting the Argentine bishops to ask forgiveness for not having done enough during the dirty war, as it was called in Argentina.
How hostile was this man to liberation theology? Again, this is a more complicated question than might at first appear:
What do we mean when we use a hegemonic and singular umbrella term like “liberation theology?” Are we referring to the particular texts that arose in the 1960s and 1970s from the academic and professional theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff? Both of whose work, by the way, varies in style, method, and outcome. Do we mean the pastoral legacy of the slain Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero? Do we mean the Jesuits and diocesan priests who took up arms in El Salvador against the will of Romero who, according to the critiques of now-Pope Francis, might also be labeled “opposed to liberation theology” in this context? What exactly do we mean?
If we mean the importation of the materialist arguments of Marxism into Catholic theology, then it seems perfectly clear to me that any Archbishop would oppose it. And should oppose it. But if we mean by it an aggressive posture always in favor of the poor, then we have simple orthodoxy, of the kind Jesus clearly taught. In that respect we have these new words from this new Pope to understand where he is coming from:
And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!
I know I have a serious confirmation bias at work here. I desperately want reform in the church and although I remain of the conviction that this has to start with us, its ordinary members, the signals and signs of the hierarchy do convey the faith to millions – and that matters.
And so in yesterday’s Gospel, we found ourselves with Jesus and the adulteress again. The gospel passage is one of the most disarming – because it is about disarmament of the ego, openness to the other, and forgiveness. “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says, in an astonishing embrace of humanity in all its flaws, left finally alone with a woman facing imminent death by stoning.
His move is a lateral, not hierarchical one – the mysterious, ineffable, sudden crouch that Jesus goes into when questioned by other rabbis. He writes in the sand – words or signs we will never know. The forgiveness is overwhelming – too overwhelming for us to accept it most of the time. And so the Holy Father yesterday spoke directly to me when he called so many Catholics out for not feeling worthy of forgiveness:
Meditating on the Gospel passage (John 8: 1-11 — “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”), Francis said, “This is Jesus’ message: mercy. On my part, I say it with humility; this is the the Lord’s strongest message: mercy. He himself said: ‘I did not come for the righteous.’ The righteous can justify themselves.… Jesus came for the sinners.”
“‘Oh, Father,’” Pope Francis continued, relating what people often say to priests, “‘if you knew my life you wouldn’t say that.’”
“Why? What have you done?”
“Oh, I’ve done bad things.”
“Good! Go to Jesus; He likes you to tell him these things. He forgets. He has the special ability to forget. He forgets them, kisses you, embraces you, and tells you only, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.’ He only gives you this counsel. A month later we are the same.… We return to the Lord. The Lord never tires of forgiving us, never! We are the ones who get tired of asking forgiveness. Let us ask for the grace to never tire of asking forgiveness, because he never tires of forgiving us.”
This incomprehensibly comprehensive forgiveness is God in the Christian sense. It allows us to start anew, to see, as Saint Francis did, the forgetfulness of nature itself, its capacity for regrowth, for healing, to look into the buds on the trees in spring:
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
(Photo: People gather in St Peter’s Square ahead of the arrival of Pope Francis who will give his first Angelus Blessing to the faithful from the window of his private residence on March 17, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. The Vatican is preparing for the inauguration of Pope Francis on March 19, 2013 in St Peter’s Square. By Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.)