There Is Not Just One Way To Be Pope

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One of the things that’s been bothering me (as well as several other good bloggers I read) in the days since the election of Pope Francis is the seeming need of many to identify a single cookie-cutter model which every “good” pope most follow. I recall some of this when Benedict succeeded John Paul, but it was perhaps more muted both by a certain gravity stemming from John Paul’s very public death and funeral, and also by the fact that the although we certainly lived in a “new media” age then, it hadn’t gained the dizzying speed which social media has since provided to “reax”.

Thus it seems as if much of the coverage of the new pope boils down to, “Francis isn’t as intellectual and liturgically focused as Benedict, so he’s not as good” or else “Francis is so ‘humble’ and focused on the poor, he’s clearly a much better pope than Benedict”. Then there’s the next level of escallation in which each side tries to steal the virtues of the other: Oh yeah, well if Francis were really humble he wouldn’t insist on simplicity, which is really a subtle exercise in saying “look at me”! You say Francis cares about the poor and about simplicity? Well look how much Benedict cared about the poor and about simplicity!

I think this quickly gets silly, and more to the point it starts to act as if there is only gone right way for the pope to act. The fact is, being the shepherd of God’s flock on earth is a job large enough that there are multiple different ways of doing it that are right. (Which is not to say that every way is right, obviously, we’ve had some pretty bad popes over the centuries.)

It seems to me that John Paul II’s dense intellectualism combined with his oversize and highly charismatic personality was arguably exactly what the Church needed at the time of his pontificate — as we emerged from a time in which it seemed like the roof was coming down and everything was up for grabs. Benedict’s liturgical focus was another thing that the Church desperately needed at the time that he was chosen — and I think that his ability to write deeply yet clearly was also a huge need. If John Paul II’s struggle to incorporate Catholic teaching and a moderl philosophical understanding of the human person were something very much needed in our modern era, I at the same time suspect that Benedict’s books (both his books about the life of Christ and the many books he wrote prior to his pontificate) may actually be read more often by ordinary Catholics in the coming decades than anything that John Paul II wrote.

Similarly, I think that Francis’ intentional simplicity is something that we need to see in our pope at times. This is not to say that Benedict and John Paul were not simple. They were, though in different ways. But while not every saint needs (or should) be simple in the sort of over-the-top way that our pope’s namesake St. Francis of Assisi was, St. Francis nonetheless remains a good saint to have. That it is good that we have St. Francis as an example does not mean that every other saint is the less for not being St. Francis. (I mean, let’s be honest, St. Francis could be kind of nuts.) And similarly, admiration of Pope Francis’s qualities need not, and indeed should not, be turned into a criticism of other popes for not being like him in every way.

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  1. catholics are more than billion, so from that billion, others pray faithfully. What l know for sure, our Popes are chosen by God, He hears our prayers, He knows what his church need

  2. Good article, and I’ve also seen the unfortunate comparisons that are, perhaps, inevitable, but we will hopefully grow out of as the months and years go on.

    Another thing that bothers me, along the same lines, is the overwhelming notion that our whole Church will either collapse or flourish due to the style of a single pope. One of the greatest emphases of Vatican II was that the whole Church, down to the youngest Catholic in the pews, shares responsibility in the Body of Christ. History shows that the Church survives bad popes while faithful laymen and religious do their jobs, and the Church, even with holy popes, suffers because of the sins of her other members. We can’t now put our hope in even this Servant of the Servants of God if it means not being fully aware of our own very great responsibility to be evangelists with the virtues of faith, hope, and love.

    For the Church to actually change, a personal metanoia multiplied by as many Catholics as sit in the pews each Sunday will be more fruitful than one sitting on the throne of Peter. To deny this is to deny the Holy Spirit His potential in the baptized Body. We desperately need holy popes, but we just as desperately need holy Catholics, and as many of them as possible. We don’t just need more Pope Francises. We need more Jorge Bergoglios in every city of the world, washing feet; more Joseph Ratzingers to challenge Catholics to know and love orthodoxy, more Karol Wojtylas, challenging the secular world with philosophy that conforms to the Word. And we can’t wait to be served by them. We ourselves must serve.

  3. Most of what’s being discussed has nothing to do with matters of doctrine or administration. Those are arguably the two most important aspects of the papacy. Doctrine is the long-run biggie, and we can rest assured that there won’t be any mistakes on that front. Administration is important for the short-term, and I’m reluctant to judge any pope’s record. With all the dioceses, seminaries, orders, Pontifical Commissions, Congregations, and things I’ve never heard of, I’m sure I’m not qualified to appraise the quality of a pope’s work.

    I should also make note of the least-apparent of the pope’s duties, pious prayer for the faithful. I believe that we are especially blessed to have Benedict and Francis keeping us in their prayers.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this. Some of the blog articles I’ve read are just … awful. Focusing on what he wears or doesn’t wear… when and where he holds Mass… etc. *sigh* I am so grateful Our Father in Heaven didn’t make us all the same, nor all our Popes or Saints… that would certainly get awfully boring. Just sayin’.

  5. And since we’re not the same, we live the Christian spirit differently. So what Pope Francis does as an example, we have to examine and apply to our vocation as fits. For example, his spirit of poverty called him to take public transportation when he was Archbishop. But my job really requires me to have a car, and a home, and a lot of other things. This of course does not mean I need the nicest car or home. And this spirit calls on me to make sure I really need what I purchase and without extravagance. In the end, for both of us, this spirit calls upon us to be detached from the goods of this world as we direct our lives to the other.

    The spirit of poverty he lives, as well as other examples he will show us, is one proper to a religious. The spirit I am called to live is proper to the layman.

    I think the ultimate problem that will occur when some will point to Pope Francis and say “There, you have to do that.” That will do injustice to the variety of vocations in the Church.

  6. One great advantage of Francis’s papacy will be that in four years time the LCWR, Tina Beattie, the ‘nuns on the bus’ and other divers heretics will realize that they are no nearer their ideal of wimminpriests and acceptance of ‘gay’ marriage than they were under the archreactionary Benedict. And they will shut up.

  7. John – I think the real advantage is that in four years, the nones on the bus, as well as the rest of my unlamented generation, will be four years closer to extinction. We’re the ones that took everything down in the 60’s; we won’t shut up for good until you get to throw dirt on top of us. Holy Mother Church simply keeps on trucking along, praise be to God. In a couple of hundred years, the whole hippiepinkokumbaya mess will be a brief footnote in the Ecclesial History text, ancd the last copy of “Sing a New Church into Being” will be returning to compost in a landfill somewhere.

    Every Catholic pope hastens the day.

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