Sunday, August 11, 2013

Pope Francis and the "Mission" Thing

"In time, we will understand the mission of Pope Francis."

"Just give it time, and we will see what great things the Holy Spirit has in store for the Pope."
My friends tell me this all the time whenever the discussion centers on Pope Francis. Some of my traditionalist brethren fear he is going to set back the traditionalist cause decades if not outright killing it. Others parse every word, looking for a grand agenda, and when his sweeping reforms will start. All of this happens even though, according to Pope Francis' own words, he hasn't done much of anything since becoming Pope, and he has played his cards incredibly close to his chest on what he was going to do.

This got me thinking. What happens if Pope Francis doesn't accomplish much of anything? What if, ten years later, the Church looks a lot like what it looked like before he became Pope, for good or bad? What if he has no grand mission? Does this make his pontificate a failure? If you listen to the Catholic Acela Corridor in the commentariat, you might think so. We moderns believe that everything we do is of earth shattering importance for ages to come. The historical record really says otherwise.

Really, how many hugely consequential Popes have there been in history? Even though most of them were canonized saints, there were probably only two or three popes of the first three centuries who left an indelible mark on the papacy, the Church, and the world as a whole. You tend to get one every couple hundred years. These men tend to have very long reigns, and the "mission" only becomes apparent in hindsight.  Very rarely is the Pope a Hildebrand of Sovana (St. Gregory VII) who was swept into office on account of his ability to get big things done, and then gets big things done. Even then, it took awhile for his reforms to be truly vindicated. Most tend to be men like Leo XIII and John Paul II: respected men who became Pope, and then used various circumstances to their advantage in molding the Church during their lengthy lives.

What makes the modern era interesting is that there seems to have been several popes of consequence. Starting with Pius IX and ending with the death of St. Pius X, you had a remarkable 68 years of Popes who towered over their predecessors and even many of their successors. The popes after these men were good popes. Benedict XV, Pius XI and Pius XII accomplished a lot of things. Yet you really don't get a truly consequential pope until John Paul II. Even then, it was not apparent from day one greatness was written in his future. It was only after a lengthy reign (almost three decades) was he recognized as the Pope that (for the most part) stopped the existential crisis the Church had found herself in after the Second Vatican Council, and who spiritually formed a new generation of priests to faithfully live out the priestly vocation. His goals were confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI, who made sure that the council and the liturgical reform be in line with tradition.

Really, the odds are that Francis won't be a hugely consequential pope, that any reforms he undertakes will be gradual and modest, and there is nothing wrong with that. Only with the modern Catholic Media Complex is there the idea that everything the Pope does is part of some huge reform plan. Most popes simply tried to use the grace of God to govern the Church as they see fit. Sometimes they succeeded, other times they failed. (John Paul II admitted he failed to do much about the horrid state of the liturgical reform for example.) If most Popes simply didn't do that much, and their reforms were modest, most of them would run out of things to blog about, and run out of ways to draw in advertising money.

Now all of this could be wrong, and Francis could end up being a hugely influential pope who, one way or another will leave his mark upon Christianity for centuries. Let's just not expect that to happen. We've got more important things to worry about in the meantime.


  1. Major popes of consequence huh? Lets see, here would be my list of fifteen offhand excluding St. Peter:

    St. Victor I (189-199)
    St. Callistus I (217-222)
    St. Damasus I (366-383)
    St. Leo I (440-461)
    St. Hormisdas (514-523)
    St. Gregory I (590-604)
    St. Nicholas I (858-867)
    St. Gregory VII (1073-1085)
    Alexander III (1159-1181)
    Innocent III (1198-1216)
    John XXII (1316-1334)
    Gregory XIII (1572-1585)
    Benedict XIV (1740-1758)
    Leo XIII (1878-1903)
    John Paul II (1978-2005)

    I want to make clear that the list above involves popes of consequence insofar as they made decisions that had wide reaching consequences both in the Church as well as in the world at large. The list could be expanded a bit here and there (and there would be others who could be argued should be included) but if I were to make a quick listing of say fifteen such popes out of two hundred and sixty five, there it would be.

    I expect the same thing from Pope Francis that I did from Pope Benedict XVI: a solid if unspectacular pontificate with a few signature accomplishments. In Benedict's case, the signatures were (i) his focus on liturgical reform which includes Summorum Pontificum, (ii) The Anglican Ordinariate, and (iii) re-engaging the dialogue with the Orthodox which had noticably frozen over in the last years of Pope John Paul II's pontificate. With Pope Francis, I expect (i) a thorough reform of the Curia, (ii) a greater focus on the pastoral and evangelical aspects of the papacy -even exceeding that of John Paul II, and (iii) closer ties being fostered with the Orthodox Churches. He is already doing the second part of that -if the first and third get tended to also, that would make for a solid yet unspectacular pontificate.

  2. Shawn's overall point is dead on. It reminds of an experiment I would do while still in the Navy. During down time while deployed, I would often throw out questions like, "What are the top ten movies of all time?" Without fail, the most in the group would rattle off a list of films, most of which had been made in the last ten years or so. Same outcome when considering baseball players, cars, etc. People, and maybe Americans more so, don't have a perspective for the "long game" but rather can only see the "here and now."

    Pope Francis will fix some things that need really attention and set the stage for the next man who has to answer the call. And to echo Kevin, "There is nothing wrong with that." And the list that proposed is definitely solid.


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