Rorate Caeli

Point: The Inevitable Pope

a guest-post by Fr. Richard Cipolla, DPhil

(See also: Counterpoint: Santità, mi scusi: An Open Letter)

The media is awash with positive fascination with Pope Francis. Secular blogs known for their hostility to the Catholic Church are effusive in their approval of Papa Bergoglio in whom they see as the man who will transform the Catholic Church into a religious version of liberal secularism. But whatever adjectives one applies to Pope Francis, the most apt is really “inevitable”. That the Church should have a Pope like Francis was inevitable, for he is the first Pope who is a product of the post-Vatican II Church. His two predecessors, Blessed Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were products of a pre-Conciliar Church. They were trained for the priesthood and were ordained immediately after World War II. They were formed by what one could call a classical preparation for the priesthood. While it is true that both of Pope Francis’ predecessors played significant roles in the Second Vatican Council, they were not formed by the Council. They were the last Popes to have an institutional memory of the Church before Vatican II. And so it is not surprising that both John Paul and Benedict made doctrinal continuity an important aspect of their respective papacies.

Pope Francis is the first Pope who was ordained priest after the Second Vatican Council. His whole ministry in the Church has been in the post-Conciliar time. He was ordained in 1969, four years after the close of the Second Vatican Council. Thus the beginning of his ministry in the Church took place in that decade after the Council that was marked by upheaval, confusion, and rapid change both in the Church and in the Western world. The Jesuit order, of which he was and is a member, was in many ways an icon of that tumultuous time in the Church’s history. Under Pedro Arrupe, named Father General of the Jesuits in the year the Council closed, the Jesuits cast off their image as the brilliant soldiers of the Pope to take on an image of revolutionaries, both in the ecclesial and worldly sense. Their espousement of liberation theology, their active involvement in opposing oppressive governments, and their anti-authoritarian attidues gained them the admiration of some, as well as the public rebuke of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. Like so many religious orders, they experienced a real decimation in their ranks, from which they still have not recovered.

Pope Francis’ inevitability is not merely temporal, that sooner or later someone ordained after Vatican II would become Pope. His inevitability has a deeper meaning: that the foment and confusion and both spiritual and ecclesial amnesia that marked the decades of the 60s and 70s are once again present. It is back to the future in many ways. The church leaders of those heady days are coming back out of hiding. In Rome, a city having an uncanny sense of shifts in direction, those who found the last two papacies oppressive with their insistence on St. Augustine’s dictum, “Love and do what you will”, think that they can again act according to their own version of the great saint’s directive: “Do what you will and call it love”. Those who chafed under the insistence on continuity and Tradition of John Paul and Benedict now can proclaim what they have always believed: that the last two papacies were mere aberrations, just a temporary holding back of the inevitable apotheosis of the Zeitgeist of Vatican II that will usher in an age of peace, joy and love without the encumbrances of doctrinal and moral authority.

But I would caution them to not take their white bell-bottomed trousers out of the closet yet and start singing “Stayin’ alive”. Papa Bergoglio has surprised the Church and the world in many ways these past few months. And these surprises are part of his inevitability. But it is obvious that he is a man of great faith who understands the command to love and who takes his role in the Church seriously. So it is inevitable that he will grow into his role from being merely the bishop of Rome to the job of governing the Church in the footsteps of Peter as the Vicar of Christ on earth. And that should be no surprise.