Yesterday, the Holy Father did something completely unexpected: nothing at all.
In his long-awaited exhortation on the Amazon Synod, Querida Amazonia, we find the clearest insight into Pope Francis’s thinking on the vocations crisis, both in the Amazon and across the Western world. His solution is not to do away with clerical celibacy. It is not to ordain women to the diaconate or priesthood. It is not to encourage “lay-led services” in lieu of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. His recommendation is simply this: prayer and preaching.
“No Christian community is built up which does not grow from and hinge on the celebration of the most holy Eucharist,” he writes; “This urgent need leads me to urge all bishops, especially those in Latin America, not only to promote prayer for priestly vocations, but also to be more generous in encouraging those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon region.”
Nothing has changed, and there’s nothing in Querida to suggest it ever will.
Not only that, but I detect a whiff of apology for the Pachamama incident. Yes: he claims that “it is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry.” But he also insists that those symbols must undergo a “gradual process of purification or maturation”—in a word, Christianization. I suppose the Christmas tree would be an example of a pagan symbol that has been so “purified” of heathenry. Whether this is possible for a statue of a fertility goddess is dubious, but it shows that Francis hasn’t lost the plot.
Indeed, it was a tremendous relief to find that the Holy Father closed Querida with an appeal to the Blessed Virgin. “Let us now lift our gaze to Mary,” he urges:
The Mother whom Christ gave us is also the one Mother of all, who reveals herself in the Amazon region in distinct ways. We know that “the indigenous peoples have a vital encounter with Jesus Christ in many ways; but the path of Mary has contributed greatly to this encounter.” Faced with the marvel of the Amazon region, which we discovered ever more fully during the preparation and celebration of the Synod, I consider it best to conclude this Exhortation by turning to her.
To Our Lady, that is—not Pachamama.
Many conservatives have praised Querida. Gerhard Cardinal Müller, for one, called it a “pastoral letter of prophetic power”—one that could have a “reconciling effect of reducing internal Church factions, ideological fixations and the danger of inner emigration or open resistance.”
So, naturally, progressives are up at arms. The Daily Beast laments that, “with a big ‘No’ to married priests, Pope Francis shows that, yes, he’s still Catholic.” The Central Committee of German Catholics, a group of laymen chosen by the German bishops to accompany them on their “synodal journey,” released a rather nasty statement responding to the exhortation. They regret that the Pope didn’t “find the courage to implement real reforms on the issues of consecration of married men and the liturgical skills of women that have been discussed for 50 years.”
On the contrary. Pope Francis showed tremendous bravery by defying his friends in the Church’s progressive wing, who have long called for the Church to relax its teachings on sexuality—for priests and laymen alike. No doubt many of them helped him get elected, believing they would find him a pliable instrument for advancing their own agenda. But the Holy Father has refused to play the patsy. Whatever we may think of Francis, today he deserves unqualified praise from all faithful Catholics. Indeed, the Pope is still Catholic.
There’s another faction within the Church who will be equally disappointed: the anti-Francis fanatics. As even Steve Skojek of OnePeterFive (no Francis groupie) recently pointed out, much of the right-wing media earns its daily bread by relentlessly trashing the Vicar of Christ.
In fact, just last week, National Review’s March edition appeared on the NR website. Its cover is adorned with a cartoon of a dour-looking Francis; the lead article, “Wayward Shepherd,” was written by Assumption College professor Daniel Mahoney. After describing the Pope’s worldview as “a modish and unthinking progressivism,” Professor Mahoney goes on to say: “Let us hope that Pope Francis comes to see the need to uphold authentic continuity in the Church—fidelity to her old wisdom—and not a frenzied chasing after change for change’s sake. This is a hope that is fully in accord with the filial respect that faithful Catholics owe the Holy Father.”
I wonder if National Review and Professor Mahoney will publish a follow-up article praising Francis’s handling of the synod. Somehow, I doubt it.
The truth of the matter is that Francis is a more complicated figure than both his admirers and his detractors often realize. For one, nobody who knows Francis’s track record on celibacy was too concerned about the future. On one occasion, he quoted Paul VI as saying, “I’d rather give my life than change the law on celibacy.” He called celibacy “a gift to the Church,” adding: “I don’t think optional celibacy should be allowed. No.”
And, while nothing excuses the presence of that Incan idol in the Vatican garden, Francis was clearly distressed by the incident. Following the ceremony with Pachamama’s shamanettes, he took the rostrum with a grave expression on his face and announced that he would forego his prepared remarks, instead choosing simply to pray the Our Father.
As for the synod itself, Francis expressed his frustration with “a group of elite Christians” who wanted to “get into intraecclesiastical matters—meaning, say this side won or that side won.” He warned Catholics not to become “prisoners of this select group,” and to focus instead on helping the people of the Amazon. In this way, he said, “we are all winners.”
How are we to make sense of this papacy? Well, as I wrote in these pages back in September, Francis’s admonition of the German bishops over their “synodal journey” seemed to mark a turning-point in his leadership. At last, Francis appeared to understand that his progressive allies don’t share his ultimate commitment to Catholic orthodoxy. He sees himself as a reformer, not a revolutionary; it’s only now dawning on him that revolution destroys the very possibility of reform. You can’t repair that which has already been torn down.
So, just as he defied his ally Reinhard Cardinal Marx and his “journey,” now, too, has he defied his old friend Claudio Cardinal Hummes—a true radical whom Francis hand-picked to lead the synod. Cardinal Hummes was responsible for the most outrageous proposals put forward by the Amazon synod’s fathers, including the ordination of married men and the creation of a new “Amazonian Rite.” Francis deposited the latter in the lap of Robert Cardinal Sarah, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and one of the most ardent traditionalists in Rome. He may as well have stamped it “Return to Sender” and shoved it back in the mailbox.
Let me end by saying (though I hope it need not be said) that none of the above is meant to shield Francis from legitimate and constructive criticism. It is certainly to defend him from flippant or destructive criticism, which surely must be part of that “filial piety” Professor Mahoney talked about. I should think any loving, dutiful son would leap at the chance to praise his father—especially his Holy Father.
More than that, however, let’s seize every opportunity to be optimistic about the future of our Catholic faith. Pope Francis keeps a statue of a sleeping St. Joseph on his desk, as a reminder that the Patron of the Church watches over the faithful even in his rest. Querida Amazonia is a reminder, too. The Holy Spirit—that “other comforter” promised to us by Our Blessed Lord—won’t fail to guide Francis in matters so grave as these.
One last note. To those who have offered the intentions of their rosaries and fasting for the Pope that he may grow in wisdom and persevere in the Apostolic faith: this exhortation is the fruit of your labor, too. Thank you. And, please, keep praying for our Holy Father. There’s still a great deal more work yet to be done.
Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images