Fr Kevin Hegarty
In the early days of February 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, aged 76, was looking forward to his imminent retirement. He hoped to have more time to relax and support his local football team.
On February 11, Pope Benedict XVI startled the world by resigning the papacy, the first Pope to do so since 1414. Cardinal Bergoglio flew to Rome to attend the conclave to elect the new pontiff. To his surprise he was the chosen one.
As Pope Francis, he has transformed the papacy in style and substance. He refused to live in the sumptuous papal apartments, and he’s based himself in a Vatican guesthouse. He abandoned other luxurious trappings, such as the papal limousine. Readers may recall that on his visit to Ireland in August 2018, he travelled in a small Skoda.
According to him, the Church should be a field hospital, caring tenderly for those wounded by the circumstances of their lives. Reform of the murky Vatican finances is a priority for him. He has castigated the insidious clericalism in the Vatican Curia. He is passionately committed to the elimination of poverty and the care of the environment.
He has advised that Catholics should not concentrate obsessively on sexual morality as if it were the main thing in their belief system. He has stated that the pastoral care of Catholics in second relationships can include welcoming them to the Eucharist.
On homosexuality, in contrast to a Vatican document describing the orientation as disordered, he has admitted, ‘Who am I to judge?’.
He criticised some Italian priests ‘who don’t baptise the children of single mothers because they were not conceived in the sanctity of marriage. These are today’s hypocrites. Those who clericalise the Church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation’.
A commitment to dialogue, in contrast to his two papal predecessors, characterises his papacy. In 2016, he asserted that ‘if there is one word we should never tire of repeating it is this: dialogue’.
We are called to promote a culture of dialogue by every means possible and thus to rebuild the fabric of society. Within the Church, he extends the concept of synodality, which means that laity, religious and priests should meet together to discern the pastoral needs of the Catholic community.
Pope Francis commitment to dialogue has met overt and covert opposition in the Vatican. Several cardinals, appointed by Popes John Paul and Benedict, are unhappy with his reforming zeal. Though Benedict promised to remain ‘hidden from the world’ in his retirement, he has offered occasional implicit support to the Pope’s opponents. As he is 92 and increasingly infirm, it is possible that he is being used in this ugly conflict.
One of Francis’ strongest adversaries is the African Cardinal Robert Sarah, who is the Vatican head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. He is a traditionalist who advocates a return to pre-Vatican II liturgical practices. He has recommended, for example, that priests should celebrate the Eucharist with their backs to the congregation, as was the norm until 1965, and that people should kneel when receiving Communion and take the host only on the tongue. He has described same-sex unions as ‘regressive for culture and civilisation’.
Tensions between Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah have flared up again in recent weeks. Last October, the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region met in Rome and recommended to the Pope the ordination of married deacons to the priesthood, as the region is acutely short of priests. Francis is believed to favour the request.
Just as he is contemplating his decision, Cardinal Sarah issued a book, which he claims was co-authored with Benedict XVI. In the book, he asserts that any opening to married priests would be a great danger to the Church. In the midst of the furore, Benedict’s secretary, Archbishop Gänswein, denied that the former Pope was co-author, though he did contribute a chapter to the polemical text.
Many Catholic liberals are disappointed with the pace of reform in Francis’ pontificate. Last month’s controversy is an indication of the opposition he faces. I suspect that there are moments when he wishes he was back in Buenos Aires in obscure retirement.