A Voice Crying Out in the Blogosphere: Pope Francis and the Problem of Poverty and Action

Pope Francis has a problem.

It certainly doesn’t look that way at first glance; after all, it seems like the whole world is infatuated with the current Bishop of Rome. Catholics and non-Catholics alike cannot help but be mesmerized by him, and for good reason: every day it seems like Francis is doing something crazy, unexpected, or remarkable. In the spirit of poverty, Pope Francis has foregone the red papal shoes, eats simple meals in a cafeteria with fellow priests, paid for his own hotel bill following the Conclave, and decided to live in a simple guest house instead of the comfortable papal apartments. From the pulpit, Pope Francis has decried food waste as stealing from the poor and treating the poor like trash, denounced pure capitalism as being equal to war, and called young people to free humanity from its enslavement to economic and social systems. He has been sighted performing a supposed “exorcism”, riding in an open car in the middle of a rainstorm to greet pilgrims, embracing disabled children, and offering his white zucchetto to a young girl (thereby appointing his future successor, according to some confused websites). The Vatican, it seems, can hardly keep up with him.

To the media-savvy Catholic, the last few months stand in stark contrast to the days when the Church was seen as out of touch, insensitive, and maybe even irrelevant. There is great hope and energy among clergy and laity alike for the future. And though much healing still needs to take place, time will tell if perhaps one of the great legacies of Pope Benedict XVI was taking the scandals the Church was facing with him into retirement.

However, Pope Francis has a problem. Everyone is talking about him and what he says. But that is mostly all they are doing. Reporters publish positive analyses of his calls for simplicity and poverty from the plush accommodations of some of Rome’s finest hotels. Politicians on both sides of the aisle incorporate his words into stump speeches but refrain from any substantial action. Catholics cling to their individual interpretations of the faith, incorporating his words into their arguments when they already agree with his position, while ignoring or spinning his calls to action when they disagree.

True, it has only been a few months since Pope Francis has held the papacy; perhaps more time is needed before real substantive action can take place. Nevertheless, these initial months have revealed a potential problem, a problem that could expand and intensify in the months and years to come, a problem that could demoralize those with high expectations and validate the Church’s cynics.  In short, there is a problem that needs to be nipped in the bud. In spite of the Pope’s remarkable words praising action and his living example of solidarity, his papacy could become more and more defined by calls to action left unanswered. Fortunately, there are three major ways such an unfortunate outcome can be avoided.

First, the Vatican needs to do a better job of assisting Pope Francis. One recurrent issue, for example, has revolved around the Vatican’s policy on publishing the Pope’s daily homilies. Attempting to respect the impromptu and personal nature of Francis’ sermons, the Vatican publishes only summaries of what the Pope has said during daily Mass. But these incomplete and selective synopses can lead to quotations that are stripped of their context, make arguments sound patchy, and leave the Pope’s intentions somewhat unclear, leading to more questions than answers. If the daily homily is going to be a major part of Pope Francis’ evangelization, as it seems to be, then theologians and ordinary Catholics alike need real access to the Pope’s daily sermon texts and recordings.

Second, media agencies need to ensure their religion reporters and editors are qualified to do their jobs. This is not a Catholic-only problem. I am sure many Muslims, Sikhs, Mormons, and evangelical Christians (to name a few) feel similarly. A prime example was the media reporting of the Pope’s comments on Jesus Christ and atheism. Based on the headlines (“Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics”“Did Pope Francis mean to open up the gates of heaven for atheists?”), one would have thought Pope Francis was leading the Holy See out of darkness, while in reality the Pope was only reiterating a position the Church has long held. The confusion came down to a failure to understand the Catholic notions of redemption and salvation, that all can be redeemed without all being saved, because while redemption is entirely God’s action, salvation requires the cooperation of the individual (the acceptance of God’s grace through free will). Someone reporting on the Catholic Church should know that. We expect our political reporters to know the nature and structure of politics like the back of their hands, and our financial editors need to be well-versed in market lingo. It is time we held religion reporters to the same standards.

Finally, Catholics need to step up and set a good example by reacting to the Pope’s words with more than just passive approval. Right now, Pope Francis is like a 21st century John the Baptist, a voice crying out in the blogosphere. And this is great, but we really need a Pope who is able to follow in the footsteps of Christ by preaching the Gospel with action as well as words. Pope Francis so far has been remarkable on this front, but his example is moot if we Catholics who enthusiastically listen to his words don’t incorporate them into our actions and daily lives. It’s a problem if his simple living doesn’t drive us to share our riches and live with modesty and humility. Francis already has enough problems (a world at war, a Church divided, people living in injustice and enslavement), let us help him by turning our verbal praise into resolved action and demand more from our Church, our media, and ourselves.

Michael Fischer is a recent graduate of Georgetown University.


Fr. Brown: A Model for Young Catholics in the 21st Century

My vote for Hollywood’s next action hero and the literary model for young Catholics of the 21st century was first described with the following words:

“He had a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea; he had several brown paper parcels, which he was quite incapable of collecting. […] He had a large, shabby umbrella, which constantly fell on the floor. He did not seem to know which was the right end of his return ticket.”

Perhaps not the most enticing set of qualities, but don’t let that dissuade you: G. K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown – the humble English Roman Catholic priest detective of the 20th century – is a fascinating character. In contrast to the perceived paucity of (and problems with) contemporary and popular Catholic literature, in the volumes of Fr. Brown’s tales, one finds humor, wit, excitement, moral questioning, and a window into a strange and forgotten world. The general entertainment value of these stories notwithstanding, there are at least three reasons why Fr. Brown serves as an exemplar for today’s millennials.

First, Fr. Brown resolves the seeming paradox of faith and reason in his person. While a man of the cloth, Fr. Brown utilizes rational thinking to solve the mysteries he stumbles upon. The unorthodox situations and crimes committed all have rational conclusions, and as the answer is unveiled, suddenly the disparate pieces all come together. But in contrast to the most popular detective of recent memory – Sherlock Holmes – Fr. Brown’s resolutions come from inductive, rather than deductive, reasoning; his surprising insights or revelations come from placing himself in the mindset of the criminal, or from a particularly small gesture or clue. In this, Fr. Brown’s faith really comes into its own, for his Catholic belief in egalitarian human sin, a comprehensible world, and small movements of the Spirit help remove biases and barriers to his thinking. For Fr. Brown, faith and reason complement one another, a particularly important understanding for millennial Catholics to embrace in our own lives.

Second, Fr. Brown’s successes largely derive from his familiarity with sin. Fr. Brown attributes much of his understanding of criminals and their ways to his work with sinners: the Confessional, the city streets, the underbelly of human life. Therefore, he understands sin and the sinner: he can put himself into the mind of the criminal in order to determine how he himself would have committed the crime. Yet Fr. Brown neither judges nor turns away from the sin, but instead embraces it in order to resolve it. His main investigating partner is a repentant French thief that has joined forces with the cleric after having his schemes disrupted so often by the unassuming Fr. Brown. And these mysteries, in true Catholic fashion, end with undertones of mercy, not justice; more often than not the police learn in amazement that the newly-revealed criminal has walked off with Fr. Brown deep in conversation, and the world seems better for it. In short, Fr. Brown has that real yet merciful recognition of, and engagement with, sin that millennial Catholics in this relativist and utopian time need to enshrine in our hearts.

Finally, Fr. Brown is an unlikely protagonist. Chesterton’s mysteries might be subtitled: “The Adventures of a Simple and Humble Man.” This parish priest detective usually does not appear as the protagonist or main character of the mystery, instead stumbling in unexpectedly or for some pedantic and unrelated reason. As the opening description suggested, Fr. Brown’s unassuming appearance often leads him to be ignored or put-down at first by the more “dynamic” characters of the tale. Yet, in his simplicity and humble manner, he exudes happiness, joyfully running through the details of the scene or responding quick-wittedly to a comment or question. He asks nothing in return for his discovery of the embezzler, the murderer, or the thief, but instead quietly departs from the scene to visit a poor school or hear a confession. Like your average millennial Catholic he is not larger than life, not the principle character of the stories, but he nevertheless plays his part well and with joy, and ends up being both memorable and successful.

For these three reasons and more, Fr. Brown seems to be a model for the millennial Catholic mind and spirit. Yet, perhaps most importantly, his character is entertaining. Nearly all of Chesterton’s Fr. Brown tales appear in the form of short stories, easy to quickly read and appraise. Each one contains an all-inclusive mystery to unravel: “The Blue Cross” is perhaps the most famous, yet my personal favorite so far has been “The Queer Feet.” To inspire a new renaissance in Catholic literature and to rediscover enjoyable Catholic thinking-tales, let us take up a Fr. Brown tale or two: I suspect it will be hard to stop at just one.

Michael Fischer is a recent graduate of Georgetown University.


Completa de Fide: The Encyclical on Faith and the Foundation of the 21st Century Church

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis have drawn extensive popular attention and commentary, with all eyes turned toward the Vatican. Nevertheless, amidst the frantic and chaotic days of a papal transition, some important details can slip through the cracks. In November of 2012, the Vatican confirmed that Pope Benedict XVI was putting the finishing touches on a new encyclical on faith. The excitement was palpable – members of the Curia described the text as “beautiful” and “beyond imagination.” Then, following Benedict XVI’s announced resignation, the encyclical disappeared from view with a mere cursory statement that the Pope would not be able to finish it in time.

As Pope Francis begins the daily work of his ministry, this should be rectified. Pope Francis: please finish the encyclical on faith.

The encyclical on faith is essential for the New Evangelization. Benedict XVI’s ultimate legacy will not be his governance, his appointments, or even his Twitter handle; it is his writings. This great theologian, the “teaching Pope”, has through his prose established a firm foundation for the Church in the 21st century.

The first half of this foundation are Benedict’s three books on Christ: Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, and Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. As Pope Benedict emphasized again and again, these volumes were not meant to replace the Gospels. Instead, they presented the development of a personal and meaningful relationship with Christ through reflection on the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of the Lord. Benedict’s books refocused the ultimate purpose of the Catholic Church around Christ, presenting an inspirational example of how God might be found in modern times.

The second half of the foundation are the three encyclicals of Benedict’s papacy.  Encyclicals are among the most influential and lasting documents of any papacy, but with these works, Benedict XVI explored the highest pinnacles of the Church – the theological virtues. Spe Salvi revitalized Christian hope; Deus Caritas Est reaffirmed Christian love. Caritas in Veritate applied Christian theology to justice and service in the modern world. These encyclicals begin to outline the roots of our Catholic theology in faith, hope, and love– but they do not overtly touch on one of these pillars, leaving our Christian faith unattended. Together, Benedict’s encyclicals and books on Jesus offer a solid foundation for the entire Catholic mission in the 21st century. But without an encyclical specifically focused on faith, the foundation is incomplete and wanting.

Benedict XVI could finish his writings on faith as pope emeritus, publishing it as a book or essay. However, in this form the text would not have the same lasting influence nor would it fill the hole left in Benedict XVI’s papal corpus. In completing Benedict XVI’s encyclical on faith, Pope Francis has the opportunity to establish a firm continuity between his predecessor’s ministries and his own. Such an act of continuity is not unprecedented. Benedict XVI’s own Deus Caritas Est was partially based on the writings of Pope John Paul II.

Pope Francis: completa de fide. In this Year of Faith, embrace the Jesuit ideal of contemplation in action by connecting the coming actions of your papacy with the thought of Pope Benedict XVI and complete Benedict XVI’s encyclical on faith.

Michael Fischer is a senior at Georgetown University and the President of the Georgetown Chapter of the Alpha Sigma Nu Jesuit Honors Society.