Pope Francis and the Peacocks
In February of 2012, a full year before Benedict XVI announced his abdication, Cardinal Bergoglio was interviewed by Vatican Insider offering a preview of his views on reform. Citing fellow Jesuit, Henri De Lubac the Argentine prelate criticized “spiritual worldliness,” a vice which might be defined as “a phony effort to appear holy.” He stated: “Careerism and the search for a promotion [to the hierarchy] come under the category of spiritual worldliness.” Then he offered an earthy example of this ecclesiastical vanity: “Look at the peacock; it's beautiful if you look at it from the front. But if you look at it from behind, you discover the truth ... Whoever gives in to such self-absorbed vanity has huge misery hiding inside them.” These words have special meaning now that Cardinal Bergoglio is Pope Francis I.
The targets of the pontiff before his election are not abstract: we all see the growing distance between the faithful and bishops. Whatever our judgment of the papacies of John Paul and Benedict, their personalities clearly lent a style to the hierarchy of cardinals, since all the cardinal electors had been named by these two pontiffs. The “peacocks” in the hierarchy were put there by John Paul and Benedict. Pope Francis, on the other hand, is not a peacock lover.
When he spoke to his own clergy, Cardinal Bergoglio was critical of the clericalization of the Church. The “few-but-good” vision of the JP II church is rejected as the desire of “hypocrites,” who “drive God’s people away from salvation.” Jesus, on the other hand avoided the Pharisees and preferred “appearing among the people, the publicans and the sinners.”
Rather than rest content with criticizing others, the Cardinal pointed to the outreach of fellow ministers in Buenos Aires: “We seek to make contact with families that are not involved in the parish. Instead of just being a Church that welcomes and receives, we try to be a Church that comes out of itself and goes to the men and women who do not participate in parish life, do not know much about it and are indifferent towards it.” He added, “…we also try to reach out to people who are far away, via digital means, the web and brief messaging.”
He asked his priests to adjust their Sunday homilies so as not to be “puritans” and to avoid preaching only about morality in prejudice to the gospel. Admitting that it is easier to speak about the lack of morals in others, he added: “We [priests] deal with themes related to matrimonial morals and those tied to the sixth commandment because they seem more colorful. Thus we give a very sad image of the Church.”
There is a growing internet reservoir of quotes from Francis I but the list exhibits a remarkable coherence. The pope opposes the politicization of the Church’s message. “Jesus did not preach his own politics: he accompanied others. The conversions he inspired took place precisely because of his willingness to accompany, which makes us all brothers and children and not members of an NGO or proselytes of some multinational company.” This admonition might have been taken from the website of Catholics United which also promotes episcopal depoliticization.
But avoiding entanglement with politics is not cowardice: it is, rather, a focus on what the Pope says is essential. “We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a Church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a Church becomes like this, it grows sick. It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But if the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out onto the streets and a sick withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first one.”
In the weeks to come, the world will see whether Pope Francis will be able to reform Catholicism. His efforts will inevitably be compared to his record as Jesuit Provincial and Archbishop in Argentina, particularly in the troubled times called the “Dirty War.” But new construction often requires demolition of old and harmful structures. Ridding the hierarchy of its peacocks would seem a necessary first step.
Dr. Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo is a writer at the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog.