Friday, August 28, 2015

Reading 'Pope Francis: Untying the Knots' by Paul Vallely

Some time ago a friend kindly lent me 'Pope Francis: Untying the Knots', a biography of the Holy Father by Paul Vallely.  It is an absorbing and pacy book: I remember its being published remarkably soon after the election, and read it bearing in mind that speed had been of the essence when was being researched and written.

Vallely works through the run of Jorge Bergoglio's life with methodical detail and also sprinkles it with some wonderful vignettes.  For instance, he discovered his vocation in a confessional  which he had only entered on second thoughts on his way to make a proposal of marriage.  His mother used to gather the children around radio to hear broadcasts of whole operas.  Then there is the nickname of El Chabon that he is given in villa 31, a slum of Buenos Aires, which apparently translates as 'The Dude'.

Paul Vallely's contention throughout the book is that Pope Francis' characteristic humility, simplicity, authenticity and concern for the downtrodden pour forth now so startlingly only because of difficult trials he underwent in the past.  For instance, Vallely paints a picture of his time as superior of the Jesuit province in Argentina, soon after the Second Vatican Council, in which he apparently reacted fiercely against new movements and ideas (such as Liberation Theology or modern ecclesiastical architecture) and thus divided Argentinian Jesuits into supporters and adversaries.  Then there were the difficulties of the Argentinian 'Dirty War' of 1976-1983 in which a military regime, trying to stamp out any hint of Communism, included in its long list of political enemies priests who seemed too attached to the cause of workers or slum-dwellers.  Moreover, Vallely describes various examples of collusion between representatives of the Church and the regime; even within the Church, it was difficult for Jorge Bergoglio to know where and with whom he stood.  Vallely also dwells at length upon an incident involving two priests from whom, because they had expressly disobeyed his request to stop working in the slums for their safety, Jorge Bergoglio removed the licence to say Mass and therefore, in the military's eyes, the Church's protection.  These priests were kidnapped shortly afterwards and, it seems, were fortunate to avoid death, let alone to be released. 

It was against this background, Vallely tells us, that Jorge Bergoglio was sent to Bavaria in 1986 to research a Ph.D.  Here, in the church of St. Peter am Perlach in Augsburg, he encountered a painting of Our Lady entitled 'Mary, Untier of Knots'.  This image resonated with him precisely because of the troubles he had faced in Argentina, and he took back copies of the painting on his return.  Vallely's belief is that this picture played no small part in a conversion, or something like it, that the future Pope underwent.  After this change of heart and mind, we read that he came to believe that poverty could not be eradicated without a conversion of society; he became less opposed to Liberation Theology and he set himself the challenge of adopting humility as a 'religious decision'.  It was the experience of division and disunity in the Church, of murkiness with regard to the 1976-1983 regime and the unassuaged plight of the Argentinian poor that forged the Pope Francis who now unsettles us and challenges us with his humility and directness.

It is a tale compellingly told.  I have misgivings about one aspect of its telling, however.  This portrait of Pope Francis often reads as if meant to be considered in contrast to, even in rupture with the recent history of the Church and indeed Pope Benedict in particular.  Vallely's use of the word 'conservative' (a word which I think ought particularly to be avoided in Church affairs) might justly be described as liberal, and he does not mean it as a compliment.  How thinly Vallely has veiled his disapproval of the Church's administration can be told by his use of phrases like 'Vatican crackdown' or 'conservative hierarchy'; see also his description of Benedict XVI's liturgical formality as a 'predilection for lace and Latin'.  It seems fair enough for Vallely to pit Francis against the Curia, since the Curia has certainly been in need of reform, but the assumption is made that the Curia's problems come from attachment to tradition, or antipathy towards modernity, rather than from nepotism, insularity or, come to that, from sin.  There is even the implication that, before his 'conversion', in his antipathy towards revolution, readiness to assert authority and decision to decorate a bare modernist chapel interior, Jorge Bergoglio had resembled Joseph Ratzinger, and that the new version is an improvement precisely because he apparently no longer does so.

In the first instance I find this unfair to Benedict, whose character and mission might have been different from Francis', but was far from deficient (I have sung B16's praises here).  It is certainly true that Benedict was a man of words and thoughts where Francis is more obviously a man of action and gesture, but a contemplative approach does not necessarily lead to a 'Church turned in on its inner spirituality'.  As I see it, Benedict knew his strengths and their limits — a deep understanding of Europe, along with the intelligence to grapple with it.  So, in his seven years, although he never forgot that he was Pope for all the world's Catholics, he laid down the intellectual and spiritual foundations of the New Evangelisation in Europe in particular.  He confronted the dictatorship of relativism on the very fronts on which it had declared war on the Church, and did not waver when the Western media retaliated.  He provided European Christians with the intellectual equipment to engage with the New Atheism, gender theory, the dictatorship of relativism and consumerism, and fought sin's particular footholds in Western society.  Simply by insisting that we can speak of such a thing as absolute truth, that comes from God, he did a great service for hope.

If he revived Papal fashions and invited the European faithful to a careful consideration of the liturgy, it was not to flee from the plight of the world's poor.  Rather, it dealt with one of the greatest threats to Western Christianity, namely the wholesale abolition of an awareness of its past.  How tempting it is to believe that this is the greatest of ages simply by virtue of our living in it, and consequently that our ancestors' way of life is entirely obsolete (how often do we hear this or that idea hastened along 'because it's the twenty-first century'?).  By reviving traditions in the Church, Benedict reminded us that wisdom is gained not by rejecting the past solely on the grounds of its mistakes, but by sifting carefully through the ages, avoiding its errors and, better still, embracing its triumphs.  It was a way of asking the New Evangelisation's great question to Europe: 'Do you remember that we believed because it is true?'.  

Benedict was aware that Europe carries ever less weight in the Christian world.  I think it is reasonable to suppose that one reason for his resignation was to open the way for someone more knowledgeable about the non-European Church.  So in the end, he allowed himself seven years to lay the foundations of the New Evangelisation in the West (foundations that we are to build upon with his legacy), which in turn allowed Pope Francis to concentrate on his own strengths.

This does not mean that we can afford to pay less attention to Pope Francis (who himself has said that 'every age has but a meagre awareness of its own limitations').  I simply think that Pope Benedict had a particular mission, as Pope Francis has his.  Modern Europe is not like the rest of the world: the challenge of building the Church is very different, even to the extent of needing two different kinds of Pope at different times.  This is illustrated by Vallely's own description of Argentinean popular piety and the informal, exuberant mood at Mass in the slums of Buenos Aires.  Coming from a place where the Christian faith has life like that, Pope Francis could be excused if he were baffled by European cynicism and sulky reticence towards any discussion of faith, though Laudato Si shows that he understands it very well indeed.  I see these two Popes in continuity with each other; they may have different characters and gifts, but both put these at the service of the servants of God.

Vallely's (and others') frame of thought, in which two apparently distinct halves vie for supremacy - liturgically and morally doctrinaire 'conservatives' versus energetic upholders of social justice -  is not only over-simplistic, but also produces a thoroughly disillusioning vision of the Church, which at any moment might be lost to the wrong side.  Of course there exist within the Church divisions, disagreements and (fundamentally) sin, but I do not think that these align themselves along battle-lines in the way that Vallely describes.  Vallely says, for instance: 'For all his growing sense of the need for social justice, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was doctrinally orthodox and mainstream', as if the two were incompatible.  Yet concern for social justice is a pillar of Catholic doctrine, set out clearly in Catholic Social Teaching, and social justice is achieved precisely by a universal, willing adherence to the Church's teachings.  It may be that some of the faithful are overly concerned by liturgy and rubrics, and that others have an excessively political and secular conception of social injustice, but the ideal is a combination of both spirituality and action, two things which do not contradict each other but go together in the same direction, just as Benedict's and Francis' papacies do.  All are called to the harvest (which, we are told, is rich, and the labourers few); each must bring what he can.

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