Pope Francis...The Rio Moment and Our Lady of Guadolupe

Rio, the World Youth Day, saw Pope Francis emerge as Pope in his own right, as a man at home in his papal skin, and with a very clear hand on the tiller of the Catholic Church which places its self understanding very much as a pastoral mission to be rooted in a Marian context.

"On the final Saturday, before the Prayer Vigil and the final Mass on Capacurbana beach the next morning, the Pope me with the largest episcopal conference in the Church, that of the Brazilian bishops. He spoke clearly and directly to the 300 bishops, mandating a definitive shift in not only their task but the context of it. The key theological image of the Church he presented was as the Church as Mother, a mother of tenderness and mercy:

"She gives birth, suckles, gives growth, corrects, nourishes and leads by the hand … So we need a Church capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy. Without mercy we have little chance nowadays of becoming part of a world of wounded persons in need of understanding, forgiveness, love."
If you look at this video (http://www.romereports.com/palio/pope-gets-emotional-at-the-end-of-mass-in-aparecida-english-10610.html#.Ufy1ktIm2So) you will see that when the Pope visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparaceida he had tears in his eyes. He also, immediately on his return to Rome, visited the Basilica of Mary Major to pray to Our Lady there, and to make an offering of a beach ball and something else, maybe a Eucharistic vestment or a football shirt (http://www.romereports.com/palio/pope-francis-returns-to-rome-after-wyd-2013-upon-arrival-goes-to-basilica-to-pray-to-our-lady-english-10719.html#.Ufy13dIm2So)

This Pope has made it very clear that it is to be a Marian Church, not just having processions and rosaries, but by living our her very identity from deep within the Marian reality. And it is this which, the Pope is demonstrating, he believes the renewal of evangelisation will come. Pope Francis is not an academic theologian, and indeed he sees that there is a very real danger when the Church reduces her theology to language impenetrable by the average believer and indeed when it simply becomes a narrative of words which relate only to themselves and not to the lived reality of a life in communion with Jesus. 

Rather he teaches much more in the style of Jesus, using gesture and nuanced communication such as in the parables. He understands that seeing a pope washing prisoners feet at the most sacred celebration of the Mass communicates more theology than a hundred learned tomes he might write. He also understands that such gestures make people feel uncomfortable without directly having to confront people and get into a battle. Gestures are not simply a matter of style, when used astutely they communicate in a way they excites and motivates people. And we shouldn't mistake this for some soppy lets be nice approach. It is a considered, mature perception about how people are evangelised and the problems which the Church hierarchy can put in the way, as he explained to the Brasilian bishops: "At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people. Without the grammar of simplicity, the Church loses the very conditions which make it possible “to fish” for God in the deep waters of his Mystery." For a while people were asking whether these gestures were all we were going to get, as though he was being a bit lightweight compared to his predecessor. In fact we can now see this is a profound theological methodology.

However, the way in which 3.7million people 'got' the point of these gestures, underlines the power of this method of doing theology, of being a Marian pastor. The 3.7million were the people who came to Rio for the WYD, a number which could never have been even imagined under Pope Benedict. And it wasn't simply that so many ordinary and young people 'got it', it was also that they were so alive, enthusiastic, animated, joyful. This just didn't seem like the Catholic Church at all. The stuffy, defensive, pontificating hierarchy just had vanished into thin air. The face of the Church was no longer abusing priests and apologetic bishops, but a sea of joyfilled young people of every colour and shape and size, they were centre stage, not the prelates and the priests who were rather around them and among them, supporting them but no longer centre stage. The news was no longer focused on the cleric but on the people. Because it was not just the faithful in the Church that had 'got it', the world's press had, in some way, too. 

This is the context to understand his comments on the plane back, at his impromptu press conference. The success of the WYD gave Francis the confidence perhaps to press on and move forward engaging with the press, not as an enemy but as a valuable, if potentially lethal, tool. I think he sensed that after their exposure to this Marian reality of the Church, as this living womb which gives birth to joy and life, he could begin to refashion the conversation further, to address head on the thorny questions in which the Body of Christ seemed to be tangled up in as in barbed wire or a bush of thorns. Deftly, directly, with honesty, candour and trust, he simply drew the thorns and spoke mercifully, positively, maternally. 

Francis was, by now, a man by now at home in his papal skin, and someone who wasn't afraid.  This might not sound so important, but by the end of his papacy Benedict seemed drained, fearful, nervous and brow beaten by the waves of scandal, betrayal and decades of Church decline, and from the beginning he was far from comfortable in such a very public role. The news conference showed the world that we now have a very different sort of pope, one who is not afraid, one who has a tremendous confidence and trust that despite everything God always wins out, that the good triumphs and above all we need to be merciful and compassionate because that is the reason for such hope and confidence. This tone enabled him to change not a dot of essential dogma but to lay out markers which say that the way in which it is applied has now changed. It is mercy, compassion, giving space for people to grow and find their own way with the Church playing her part to nurture, guide and encourage and yes, at times, admonishing.

Until this point it could be argued that Bergolio was very much living under the shadow of Pope Benedict, his unprecedented, still living predecessor. Even after his first 100 days while Francis had emerged as more relaxed and unstuffy than his predecessor  it was, as the right wing blogsphere liked to put it, all very much 'reading Francis through Benedict', with an implicit nervousness that this was a shadow pope only there through the permission of his, still living, predecessor and something of a theological lightweight.
The focus in the press and in the blogsphere has mainly been on the impromptu press conference, and the candid manner in which he answered every question put to him, some of which touched into the main headline generating issues of the modern papacy: gays, divorce, sex abuse. These are important, obviously, but context is important in assessing something more than which way the pope is going with these topics.

For me, what is striking, is style. Francis doesn't have a German attitude to dotting 'i's and crossing 't's. As is well documented, he preaches off the cuff but what we saw in the favela and in his reaction to the security collapse is an ease with things, a trust in Divine Providence, and a willingness to live with mistakes. Its a sort of shrug of the shoulders attitude, which is very much like Tony Blair and which makes someone very popular. He doesn't seem to take himself too seriously, and is willing to let things run a bit.

Yes, now, after Rio, things are very different. Francis is now THE Pope, not the 'other pope', and he is his own man in Christ. He is not afraid. I think this lack of fear is rooted in having worked through his own terrible failure, at great cost, in his handling of the priests under his charge while superior of the Argentinian Jesuits in the 1970s. The new biography, 'Untying the Knots' deals with this with great insight, I believe, having heard the author Paul Valley discussing it on the radio. Interesting the title of this biography is taken from the pope's favourite image of Our Lady, one where she is seen literally untying knots in a rope. The long journey of self-honesty and acceptance of the weak and sinful fracture at the heart of our humanity is the road to being a person of living faith and hope. This I believe Francis has taken and is the preparation which God in His Mercy has done to give the Church the bishop which it so desperately needs at this time when the Church as a whole is being asked, through the wave of scandals, to take the same journey. Francis is, I believe, now with courage and determination, and above all deep faith, taken us on the journey.

In this, he is taking us to the Mother of God as she bears in her womb Christ. This is the image of Our Lady of Guadaloupe. This is the Church as Mother, in the process of giving birth, and as it says in the book of Revelation, with great pain. Francis is being Joseph, caring for the Mother and supporting the Mother as she brings her children to birth. He is not taking centre stage, he is not trying to shore up his claims as pope or the privileges of the hierarchy, and he is challenging the bishops to do the same. Guadaloupe is the great Latin American image of the Mother of God, and it is perhaps the symbol of faith which is inspiring Francis.


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