There is one sociological observation by Jesus that never loses its currency in all manner of settings. When suffering rejection by his family as a disruptive upstart, Jesus made the observations that “a prophet is never recognized in his own country and by his own people,” that is among those who know him, including his family (Mt. 13:57; Mk. 6:4; Lk 4:24).
Is this why Pope Francis generates noisy hostility from a small but vociferous minority? Maybe. But there has to be some explanation for why the dogs were barking very loudly as soon as his recent exhortation on holiness appeared.
I must admit to being completely flabbergasted when I read some of the commentary on what, I thought, was such an innocent and neutral subject.
There was none more bewildering that that penned by a long-time Bergoglio critic, the Rome-based journalist Sandro Magister. But he is not alone — he is part of a small chorus that includes cardinals and bishops who are all absolutely certain this pope is leading the church into error.
But Magister’s reaction — which he posted on his blog (Settimo Cielo) within minutes of the apostolic exhortation’s publication — simply blew me away for not only the distorted and deliberately misleading interpretation of “Rejoice and be Glad,” but also for its venomous hostility to the author.
Magister claims the text was written to nail his opponents and enemies, to make them targets and so create division and discord in the church.
It was sick or weird or both. But it’s not uncommon in Magister’s circles to come up with crazy conspiracy theories that attribute malice where none is meant or effected and no harm is done to anyone.
How on earth could anyone credibly describe something written as an aid to our spiritual journey as yet another contribution to the pope’s determination to divide the church and blame people for their efforts to divide it?
Criticize Pope Francis for his tardiness on doing something more constructive about women in the church, about financial reform or the mess that the communications at the Vatican are in. Or, if you’re from the “right,” take issue with his emphasis on conscience and the “internal forum” for the resolution of moral and marital issues or his championing of migrants or his preoccupation with environmental degradation.
But holiness? What’s going on here? How can you complain about a preacher exhorting a congregation to seek the very thing the religion was formed to foster?
There’s a lot more going on in this campaign against the pope than meets the eye and actually begins a long way away from his views on this or that topic. At heart, I believe there is something happening that the church and especially the Vatican always finds hard to accommodate.
There are two lungs that Catholic Church lives on. The first is the most common and visible. That is daily business of pastoral care, the administration of the sacraments and running church administrative structures. It could be described as “keeping the shop open to serve the customers who come along every day or every week or at least regularly.”
The other lung of the church — sometimes most visibly seen in the life, service and witness of vowed religious — is the prophetic, missionary outreach that does not so much attend to the customers that arrive at the church door as it goes out to find where other customers might be.
The first lung is necessary for keeping the shop open; the second is necessary for seeing that the shop doesn’t have to close for lack of customers.
Rarely do those who are proficient in the maintenance of the institution work well without the structure. Rarely do those outside the structure and focused on growth survive as maintenance managers. But both are needed.
The simple fact is that in Pope Francis, we have a prophetic individual who at the same time runs the shop. And lots of people in the shop (aka the Vatican) find him deeply disturbing.
His adventurous, missionary impulses, his flexibility as he adapts to challenging circumstances and especially his spirituality taken from St. Ignatius Loyola, which underpins his missionary reach, are all part of who he is and why he would feel ill at ease as the boss at the General Head Quarters (GHQ).
He might feel uncomfortable. But as his noisy critics show, he makes a lot of other people feel very uncomfortable. He intimidates them because he suggests by everything he says and does that there is another world beyond GHQ to which GHQ should be an attentive servant.
He is a prophet in an institutional role. Prophets always take a beating from those they threaten. And pointing out, as Bergoglio does from time to time, just how miserable they are just infuriates them.
The fact is that the papacy is not a role usually occupied by a prophet like Pope Francis. He doesn’t fit. And that’s the real reason why some people don’t like him.
Father Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of ucanews.com and based in Thailand.