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Joe Hoover, S.J.June 13, 2024
Pope Francis speaks with priests ministering in the Diocese of Rome who were ordained 11-39 years ago during a meeting at the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome on June 11, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Sometimes I think a Mass is better off when the organist is out and the cantor is out and the Irish priest who grew up in an Irish bar sits down at the piano off to the side of the altar and right there in his cassock and alb plays the entrance hymn himself. Have you ever seen such a thing? The priest sits at the piano and plays “Hail Holy Queen” and the congregation joins in that sort of perfect, ringing way that crowds do when they sing totally on their own and sound better than even if there was a cantor (God bless all cantors). Then, when the priest finishes playing and we finish singing, he gets up from the bench and strolls over to the altar and begins Mass, in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit….

As curtain-raisers go, you could do a lot worse.

It was in the pews at this Mass that I scribbled notes for this article (between prayers!)

It was the first of what would be four different attempts over the past couple of weeks at talking about Pope Francis and the things he says and things he does that are not, well, helpful. It is also an article about the evolution of my own mindset; how my own opinion of the pope shifted from sadness to acceptance to a renewed focus on the glory of God and not of any given religious leader.

The most recent Francis indiscretion occurred Tuesday when he was reported to have used an anti-gay slur for the second time. We’ll get to that. We will get back to the cantor-less Mass, too. 

First draft

Three days after America published an article about “turning down the heat” in a polarized church, Francis ramped up the heat by declaring in an interview that being conservative was a “suicidal attitude.” In the same interview, the pope appeared to pre-empt a Vatican study group on the question of women deacons by saying there would be no ordination of women to the diaconate. 

When asked by a Portuguese Jesuit brother about American churchmen who criticized him, Pope Francis seemed to write these critics off, calling them “isolated” and “indiestrismo” or backward-looking. 

The pope dismayed, if not outright enraged Ukrainians by suggesting that Russia’s invasion of that country was provoked by NATO; by exhorting young Russians to “never give up [the] heritage” of murderous imperialist leaders such as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great; and by saying that Ukraine should have the courage of the white flag, which seemed to indicate it should surrender to its oppressor.

I could go on.

So, there was my article. Call the pope out on his verbal indiscretions. Let the world know that we desperately would like him to do better. I was finishing this piece (like any good American laborer with questionable work-life boundaries) on the afternoon of Memorial Day.

Second draft

By the end of Memorial Day this article had shifted. Gotten darker. Sadder. It was reported that the pope, in a closed door meeting with Italian bishops, had used a crude, hurtful slur in talking about homosexuals in Italian seminaries. The pope. The great advocate of mercy, using a merciless word for an entire class of people; the man whose words are meant to be a balm for the people of God using words that hurt them? Really?

As a Catholic, a Jesuit and simply a person, I was offended and disturbed by the pope’s use of this slur. It was kind of unbelievable. 

For the past couple of weeks, whenever I have heard about anything Pope Francis has done or said, past or present, anything wonderful or kind or prophetic, I could only see it through the lens of a man who used that slur. “Laudato Si’!” (the slur). World Children’s Day! (the slur). Welcoming people to the Jubilee Year! (the slur).

And the Vatican’s apology for his (first) use of the anti-gay term, felt partial and half-hearted. (The apology was for those who “may have felt offended by the use of a slur reported by others”; this rather than simply taking responsibility for what he said and naming it as wrong). And even the response by the vice president of the Italian bishops’ conference felt like another round of excuse-making, blaming the messenger. 

Third draft

So, in the wake of the verbal indiscretion of two weeks ago, feeling all but exhausted by the pope, my article amped up. To the comments about Ukraine and the contradictions around women deacons and the “suicidal attitude” of conservatives, I added new things. 

For instance, Pope Francis failed to challenge Joe Biden, a Catholic, on his support for abortion rights and instead called the robustly pro-choice president, “a good Catholic.” 

When he put out severe restrictions on the celebration of the Latin Mass, the pope offered no statement of consolation or understanding to those for whom that style of liturgy had become deeply important and life-giving. 

[I love Pope Francis’ commitment to dialogue—which is why his Latin Mass restrictions confuse me]

As Kerry Weber wrote in America last year, Francis “famously called women “strawberries on a cake,” derided “old maids” and “spinsters,” and “made jokes about mothers-in-law.”

The Vatican’s December declaration, “Fiducia Supplicans” allowing blessings for gay people in committed unions seemed to bulldoze a two-year synodal process that could not even reach consensus on using the word “homosexual” in its synthesis document, let alone engage the question of blessing gay couples. But the Vatican declared it shall be so and that was that.

And on and on.

Writing all of this, I was a prosecuting lawyer stringing together evidence, all to paint one clear picture of a Francis who is all but a pontifical bull in a china shop, insensitive to the ways his words and actions have troubled and hurt people.

“Who is going to say to Pope Francis, enough,” I wrote. “Stop with the interviews. Stop speaking off the cuff. You are smarter than that, wiser than that. Stop making life harder on yourself and the very people who are trying to make your visions for the church a reality.”

[I find ‘Fiducia Supplicans’ hard to accept. Maybe that’s the point.]

One editor who read this third draft wrote on the document: It sounds like you think the pope is a terrible leader. And truthfully it was not a pleasant article to write. Because the fact is, I do not think he is a terrible leader. But you can get on a tunnel-visioned hyper-focused literary crusade, writing something like this; almost a toxic journalistic high scouring for evidence. You shut out all the good Francis has done and see all of it stained and overshadowed by these hard papal moments. 

And then, after that draft, two days later, on May 31, it came out that the pope allegedly made a sexist remark to a group of newly ordained priests. In exhorting the men not to be gossips, the pope allegedly said, “Gossip is a woman’s thing.”

It was then that it dawned on me in a way it never quite had. This is who this guy is. He is not going to change. He is going to say “off the cuff” inappropriate things and that is it. He is not going to be like other more discrete, cautious, circumspect religious and political world leaders. That is just the deal with him, so deal with it. Accepting the things you cannot change is the only real chance at living with any modicum of peace.

And then, having written all that last week, as if he had read a draft of my article, the pope proved he is not going change by reportedly using the same anti-gay sluragain yesterday. 

Which only forces me to double down on what was ultimately going to the point of this whole piece: Namely, that, while it is good and right to be sad, angry, to mourn what Pope Francis says and does, the whole controversy also bestows on me the grace of remembering that ultimately I serve not the Vicar of Christ but Christ himself. 

That I am always going to be let down by humans but never by the One who is fully human and fully divine.

This is not to let the pope off the hook but to remind me that ultimately Jesus is on the hook for all of us. A pope is imperfect, and so am I. And we can let his imperfections and ours be conformed to the cross of Christ rather than the undying rage of our inner turmoil over him.

‘Popesplaining’

I recall one theology student several years ago bringing up the name of Pope Francis with no small amount of rage. He even stamped his foot down on the ground, as if killing a bug. And there has been a lot of foot-stomping about this pope over the last several years. And it is one thing to disagree with his theology or be angry about what he says and does. It is another to let the pope’s actions—or anyone’s actions frankly—own us, occupy us, take up residence rent-free in the unlocked quarters of our mental tranquility.  

And, the fact is, that even though I personally have tired of what a Jesuit friend calls “popesplaining,” it is true that some of his statements are served by further “nuancing”; such as his comments on conservatism; or noting that in his “white flag” statement, he was aiming for Ukraine to do what it may eventually have to do, which is to negotiate an end to the bloodshed and destruction of the war. And the context in which Francis employed the slur does matter, and that context does not indicate a hateful attitude on his part. 

Summing up a person by the history of their human errors is simply not an honest way to look at their life. The pope in fact has changed the tone and manner of the church’s approach to the L.G.B.T. community. The pope in fact has spoken words that have been balm of mercy over and over again for millions of people for more than 11 years now. He has been one of the world’s leading and most credible voices against climate change. Pope Francis has advocated for refugees, the poor, the outcast, those abandoned in a “throwaway” society.

These are facts; they are not arguable. He has been extraordinary, and his re-focusing the church on the fundamentals of caring for “the least of these,” as Christ did, has had an immeasurable impact on the world. In moments like this, I need to be reminded of a papacy like that.

I don’t write this to tell anyone else how to feel about the pope, only myself. I have to keep my eyes on the prize. We become what we look at. And if I only look at what is dark and sad, only get caught up in what is miserable out there, then inside here things can get pretty harsh pretty quick. 

When all is said and done, the good that Pope Francis does will not be overshadowed by these sad remarks. He will still be remembered as a voice of mercy and hope for people the world over. 

And in the end, for every moment I spend reflecting on the hurtful things the pope said Memorial Day weekend, I should probably spend at least twice as much time reflecting on the Mass I went to that same weekend. Where “Hail Holy Queen” was played by the priest and sung by a bunch of people in their own perfectly imperfect way. People who were just trying to go to church and sing without a cantor and raise their kids and follow Jesus and live life a little better than they would have without being Catholic. That is where the church lives and moves and has its being. And the gates of hell, let alone any ill-chosen words of a religious leader, will not prevail against it.

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