For the past year and a half many Irish commentators, especially those not known for friendliness toward the Catholic Church, have expressed great enthusiasm for Pope Francis.
They have interpreted some of his often casual comments about not judging people, about the Church serving as a field hospital, about the need for Church leaders to smell like the people, and his criticism of clerical careerism in the Curia, as indications that he will be an agent for change in the Church.
Some, who envision themselves as the true adherents to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, believe they are finally being listened to after what they allege was the downplaying of the teachings of the Council by Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Pope Francis’ socio-political statements about income inequality, poverty, and migration, although consistent with earlier Papal pronouncements, have been interpreted and referred to by some politicians as virtual endorsements of their own policies.
No wonder Irish figures not known for their religious zeal, such as Senator David Norris and President Michael D. Higgins, called for a papal visit to Ireland, and the Irish government reversed its earlier withdrawal of its ambassador to the Vatican.
Last year there was even speculation that the former Irish president, Mary McAleese, might be one of the first females to be named a Cardinal. Mary McAleese, it must be noted, is a very devout, although independent-minded, Catholic.
Of course the enthusiasm for the pope’s “modernism” exists primarily among the chattering classes, many of whom are not especially religious. But the rest of contemporary Ireland would probably be relatively indifferent to a papal visit.
This would contrast to the throngs that greeted John Paul II on his visit in 1979. Ireland then, and in the generations preceding, was much more zealously Catholic.
There was remarkable religious devotion, deference to the clergy, and almost scrupulous adherence to the sixth and ninth commandments.
Today church attendance, especially among the younger generations, is confined to a shrinking minority. The dwindling number of clergy and religious are subject to suspicion. Sexual mores have become quite liberated, as evidenced by the substantial portion of new babies born out of wedlock.
However, in recent days what enthusiasm there was for the new Pope in “religiously liberated” Ireland may well have peaked and might quickly go into a downturn following certain recent remarks by him, especially his seeming approval of parental slapping of their children.
The most significant of his critics was the above-mentioned Mary McAleese. In a letter to The Irish Times she asked if the Holy See was reversing its earlier commitment to the view of the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child that the corporal punishment of children be banned.
If so, then, she notes, “Pope Francis has surely turned the clock back considerably.”
Barbara Scully, writing in the Irish Independent, follows a similar line as she notes: “After such a promising start it seems like the Pope has gone bad or reverted to ‘Pope type’.” She saw it as a disappointment for the many who had hoped that he “would manage to bring some long overdue changes to the Catholic Church and much of its outdated teachings.”
But other unscripted comments by the Pope on matters like conventional marriage and birth control, especially in the Philippines where millions gathered to see him in desperate weather, have made liberal commentators apprehensive.
Perhaps they should be. A careful study of the Pope’s biography would suggest that their earlier expectations were unwarranted.
The difference between Pope Francis and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI are more in style than in substance. Unlike both of them, Francis is not a scholar
The present pope can best be understood by reading a new biography of him, The Great Reformer (New York: Henry Holt, 2014) by the English writer and scholar Austen Ivereigh, a former advisor to the former cardinal archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.
The book effectively demolishes the smear that Father Bergoglio, while provincial of the Argentine Jesuits, collaborated with the military junta.
More importantly, it draws a clear picture of the kind of priest, provincial, seminary rector, and ultimately bishop he was. Central to his work was his pastoral sense and his catechetical commitment. He had little patience for many in his Jesuit community committed to avant-garde theological formulations that meant little for the ordinary Catholic.
The Church for him was the Church of the people with their popular devotions and pieties. While rector of a seminary college he also served as pastor of the impoverished neighborhood where it was located.
He employed the increasing number of seminarians he attracted to help run a farm on the college’s grounds with which to provide food for the poor. But he also involved the seminarians in teaching religion to the youth of the area. That is what he meant by “the smell of the people” or the “battlefield hospital.”
He met with the disapproval of some Jesuits of more intellectual bent. Their influence with the superior general in Rome was great enough to have him sent into internal exile to a Jesuit residence in the mountain town of Córdoba.
When in 1992 he was made an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires, he was told by the order it would be more appropriate that he not live in their quarters. From then until he became pope, he distanced himself from the order. On his many visits to Rome, he never visited the Jesuit headquarters until after he was elected pope.
The point of all this is to suggest that such a pastoral minded man, committed to a popular, rather than elite, Catholicism would identify very much with the Catholicism that seems to have almost disappeared from Ireland. That is, the Catholicism of the family rosary, the Angelus, missions, novenas, and Corpus Christi Processions.
It was a Catholicism of loving families in which discipline, even physical discipline, was present, but ultimately accepted and appreciated.
But I can’t help but believe the degree of child neglect consequent upon broken or non-existing families in contemporary Ireland—not to mention that other form of neglect: spoiling children—exceeds that of earlier times.
Rather than emulate post Christian Europe, hopefully Ireland will some day soon cash in on the apostolic energies that sent its sons and daughters to the four corners of the globe by welcoming to Ireland returning missionaries from those same places.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Irish Echo on February 25, 2015 and is reprinted with permission of the author.