I remember when my favorite charismatic evangelical pastor Penn Clark years ago taught on headship at a Baptist women’s retreat where he was the only man among about 80 women and what courage it took to teach on the proper ordering of authority, of Christ as the head of the man, man as the head of the woman and so on.
Yet because Penn is such an obviously loving –in the deeply sacrificial and Godly sense of this word—no one, at least that I knew of– was offended by his teaching. Ah, to submit to a man who loves you the way Christ loves the Church! It would be easy, no? Not so easy to submit to a man or any other authority who uses power in a self-seeking, bullying way, or who exerts “might makes right.”
Penn also spoke of how God works through structure, through authority and often speaks to us through it, even if the person occupying the post may not be, in our opinion, up to snuff in terms of deserving of that position. (By the way, these teachings on headship were so profound for me as an evangelical Baptist with a long history of rebellion against authority that they prepared me spiritually for the Catholic Church and for accepting her authority in addition to appreciating Apostolic Succession and the role of the hierarchy). Penn described how, as he was working through these insights in his own life, he had a difficult boss, a woman, who smoked cigarettes and wore bright red lipstick.
He said he was astonished to find God speaking to him through those bright red lips and a cloud of smoke rings!
Which brings me to some thoughts about Pope Francis and how I try to read him. I confess, I have often struggled with dismay, annoyance and even anger over things he has said and done. And when I have allowed that anger to fester, I have experienced a great deal of inner conflict and even opened myself to spiritual attack, since there is a profound headship issue at play when a Catholic, especially a new Catholic like myself who was taught about the importance of the Pope as a sign of unity in the Church, starts stepping out from under the spiritually-protective headship of the Successor of Peter.
Because my spiritual leanings are deeply conservative and I much prefer traditional liturgy and worship I read a lot of traditionalist and conservative blogs, many of whom interpret Pope Francis in a negative light, and parse every phrase of his for attacks on Tradition. I try to read all of this material objectively, yet at the same time, consider how God may be speaking to me through Pope Francis. Over at Catholic Culture, Jeffrey Mirus has an interesting post that captures well how I have been trying to wrestle with the teachings of this Holy Father (,my emphases):
It does not really matter if my opinion of the Pope is right or wrong. Plainly, it is a personal Christian responsibility to reflect on what our Supreme Pastor says and to make a constant effort to use what he says in a positive way, to examine and enrich our own spiritual lives. There is, of course, no harm and much good in praying for the Holy Father, explaining his words to others in the context of the overall mind of the Church, and making our concerns known to him in respectful ways.
But constant public criticism of the Pope, in which we put the worst possible interpretation on his words and actions, is more than merely scandalous and corrosive. It very often reflects a dogged determination to lead an unexamined life. Do we conservatives think this failing is restricted to culture-bound liberals? Frankly, it is a sign of spiritual immaturity for any of us to yelp each time a pope makes us uncomfortable, stubbornly refusing at least to try to penetrate the spiritual point he is making, so that we might apply it to our own lives.
This tendency is so marked that sometimes Pope Francis is excoriated simply for paraphrasing Christ. “Who am I to judge?” asks Francis. And, oh!, the outcry. But those who complain should not be able to read Matthew 7:1-5 without being stung by Our Lord’s use of the word “hypocrite”.
I already hear some readers saying “but, but, but”. Because of confusion, there will always be “buts”, and some of them will be legitimate. Nonetheless, a mature Christian will always seek to extract good from the Pope’s comments on the assumption that good is what he intends. The opposite assumption—applied to anyone without significant evidence—already represents a spiritual failure on the part of the listener. The bottom line is that, if we love God, we have not only the responsibility but the power to receive all things in a way that enables them to work together unto good (Rm 8:28).
I would not go so far as Mirus in suggesting that all those who are critical of
Pope Francis lead unexamined lives, though if the shoe fits, wear it. I also think there can be a teaching role in examining what Pope Francis is saying and holding it up to the light of what the Church has always taught. So I am not slamming those writers and bloggers who are raising questions or resisting what seem to be attacks on traditional liturgy and doctrine , I am only talking about how for me I have to resist the tendency to allow myself to be continually scandalized and thus find myself continually appalled, which last time I checked is not a fruit of the Spirit.
So, when Pope Francis lays out criticisms of spiritual diseases, or of tendencies he saw at play in the recent extraordinary synod, I take a look and see which category might apply to me and examine my life accordingly. I do not take offence at what he’s saying. I do wonder at times whether he is creating straw men, but I do try to see if God is speaking to me through him, even if it is in a cloud of smoke, as it were. Mirus writes:
Maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong, so I’ll restate my opinion in a single paragraph and move on. I don’t think Francis thinks in the categories of left and right, liberal and conservative, that so many Western Catholics use as a kind of ecclesiastical shorthand to categorize conflicts over doctrine, liturgy and moral principles. Rather, I think Francis takes Catholic faith and morals for granted, but is really fed up with clericalism and formalism (call it systemic rigidity or riskless ministry) which prevents the Church (in her members) from being profoundly evangelical and constantly engaged in sacrificial service to those who are materially, morally and spiritually poor. This does lead to misunderstandings, but those misunderstandings are at least half due to our own inadequate categories of reflection.
I hope he is right on this and while I acknowledge there are lots of reasons for concern given some of the clericalist behavior of some of those on the progressive end of the spectrum around him, this is how I choose to read Francis, albeit with confessed difficulty.
When people react and say he is criticizing those who are actively prolife, who “count” their Rosaries, who say their prayers and attend Mass regularly, in other words, who say he does not seem to like Catholics, I look at my life and say, well, maybe God is trying to tell me this through Francis: yes, you may think you pray more than the average Catholic, you may think you give more, you may think you do more, you may think your church has the best and most beautiful worship but is that enough? Have you given everything to Jesus? Is that what Pope Francis is getting at? That we to whom much has been given, must show forth so much more of Christ in our lives–ablaze with divine love– than we are?
And even if that is not what Pope Francis is getting at—maybe the man may not always be yielding to the charism of the Successor of Peter as much as we might hope—is that not what God may be telling us in spite of the frailties of the man holding the office?