Here is what I think Pope Francis is up to.
In this explanation I am not necessarily endorsing specific things that he is doing (washing the feet of females in a prison) or not doing (refusing the mozzetta, etc.).
I am trying to get at what I think Pope Francis is really up to.
Before liberals and traditionalists both have a spittle-flecked nutty, each for their own reasons, try to figure out what he is trying to do.
Firstly, we are not succeeding in evangelizing. We are going backwards, globally. Francis knows this. This has to be foremost in his mind. This fact was probably foremost in the considerations of the College of Cardinals. How could it not be? So, Francis is faced with the obligation to address the problem of evangelization.
In the wealthy west, the Church is often perceived (and it is so very often portrayed) as not being compassionate. The Church doesn’t care about women in crisis pregnancies (and therefore we don’t condone abortion or contraception because we are not “compassionate”). The Church doesn’t care about the divorced and remarried (because we don’t admit them to Holy Communion and therefore we are not “compassionate”). Likewise, getting down into the nitty-gritty of defending small-t traditions and fighting over their meaning, their larger value, history and worth today, we are not compassionate (because we talk about the details of worship we are therefore ignoring the real needs of people and we are therefore not compassionate).
There are all sorts of ways in which people have lost the sense that the Church is actually about compassion, properly understood.
I think what Pope Francis is up to is trying to project, re-project, is an image of the Church as compassionate. He is trying to help people remember (or learn for the first time) that she is actually all about compassion, charity in its truest form.
We’ve lost the message and we have to get it back.
For example , in his sermon for the Chrism Mass he indicated that priests need to be edgier, take more risks in getting out there with people. He is probably thinking (like a Latin American bishop might with enormous slums in the diocese) that you depart from certain things for the sake of connecting elsewhere.
You risk being over-interpreted or losing control of the message for the sake of getting the real message out there again.
I’ll wager that, as a Jesuit, Francis doesn’t care about liturgy very much. He is just not into – one whit – either what traditional liturgy types or what liturgical liberals want.
Some liberals live and breathe liberal liturgy. On the other end of the spectrum, such as the undersigned, traditional Catholics think that liturgy is critical but for different reasons (“Save The Liturgy, Save The World“, comes to mind). Francis isn’t invested in either of these camps.
For Francis, I think, it is more a matter of “a plague on both your houses”.
Putting it in a vague way, Francis wants people to leave Mass feeling “joy”, or something having to do with the “kingdom”, etc. As he said at the Chrism Mass he wants people leaving Mass “as if they have heard the good news”.
Look. I am not saying his is the right approach. I am saying this is what I think he is doing in his liturgical and personal-style choices (where he is living, what chair he sits in, etc.).
Francis wants priests to talk to people and find out what they need and get involved in their daily struggles. Liturgy, for Francis, seems to be involved precisely in that. Do I think Francis may be missing huge points in this approach? Sure, right now I do. But I am leaving the jury out.
I don’t have to 100% embrace what Francis is doing even as I struggle to see and understand what he is up to.
I am quite sure, however, that Francis isn’t trying to ruin what Benedict and John Paul before him tried to construct. He is up to something else. He is getting at the problem of the Church not making any headway in evangelization.
Here is a problem.
Liberals will find it far easier than conservatives to claim that Francis’ actions are endorsements of their liberal thing.
Remember this: Liberals could give a damn about the gender of the person whose feet are being washed. Their focus is really the gender of the one doing the washing. Liturgical liberals are included in this. They only care about the washing of the feet of women, because ultimately they want women to do the washing. This is about the ordination of women, not about their feet.
Before these liberals start taking their victory laps, I would remind them that Francis is not going to touch doctrine. He has clearly talked about the Devil. He has spoken clearly before his election about same-sex stuff as discrimination against children. He has firmly fought Liberation Theology.
What liberals forget in their present crowing is that even as Francis makes himself – and the Church – more popular by projecting a compassionate image, he will simultaneously make it harder for them to criticize him when he reaffirms the doctrinal points they want him to overturn.
Francis is pushing out to the world (ad extra) an image of compassion. I think he is correcting both sides, within the Church (ad intra), which may both be, both sides, losing the forest for the trees: we are not succeeding in evangelizing and we cannot sacrifice doctrine for the sake of mere popularity or worldly acceptance.