October 22, 2021

The Face of Mercy / Daniel Conway

Take Pope Francis seriously, not literally

(En Espanol)

The headline in a Washington Post article dated Sept. 22 reads: “Pope jokes he is ‘still alive’ despite some bishops wishing him dead.” And the subhead continues: “ ‘It is the work of the devil,’ the pontiff said of opposition from conservatives within the Church.”

How are we supposed to understand the pope’s words? Is he joking? Or does he really believe that his enemies are plotting against him and wish he were dead? And how seriously should we understand his statement that criticism of the pope is “the work of the devil”?

Pope Francis frequently communicates with gestures and symbolic actions—such as living in the Vatican’s guest house, washing the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday and frequently welcoming the homeless poor into the Vatican. Gestures such as these can be powerful ways to illustrate the Gospel message. They capture our attention and, like the parables of Jesus, they teach important lessons using situations that are unusual or unexpected.

On the same occasion that the Holy Father “joked” about people wishing him dead, he also appeared to direct some harsh criticism at those who speak ill of him on a regular basis such as “a large Catholic television network” that “constantly gossips” about him.

Although the pope didn’t identify this media organization by name, most journalists immediately assumed he was referring to the Eternal Word Network (EWTN). According to an article in America magazine published on Sept. 21:

EWTN and its associated publications, the National Catholic Register and Catholic News Agency, along with its more than 500 radio affiliates, have been highly critical of Pope Francis. The National Catholic Register was one of two outlets that published the former nuncio to the United States and QAnon conspiracy theorist Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s explosive 2018 “testimony” calling on the pope to resign. Raymond Arroyo, the host of EWTN’s “The World Over,” has interviewed many of Pope Francis’ most fervent critics, including Archbishop Viganò, Trump adviser Steve Bannon and Cardinal Raymond L. Burke.

 “I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner,” the pope said, “but the Church does not deserve them. They are the work of the devil. I have also said this to some of them.” Is Pope Francis so thin skinned that he reacts to criticism as personal attacks prompted by the Evil One? Or is he merely exaggerating for effect?

One of the news organizations that is part of the EWTN network, the National Catholic Register, argues that, in effect, the pope’s statements should not be taken literally. Father Raymond J. de Sousa, writing in the Register on Sept. 23, the same day the Washington Post article appeared, says: “Caution is in order. The Holy Father’s words have to be read very closely, as he chooses them very carefully, as one might expect of a well-trained Jesuit.”

When the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was asked by reporters about the Holy Father’s statement that, following his colon surgery this summer, people in the Vatican were preparing for a conclave in anticipation of the pope’s death, he seemed to dismiss these concerns, saying he was not aware of any discussions or meetings along these lines. As a result, some outraged commentators suggested that the cardinal had actually contradicted Pope Francis by not conducting an investigation into an alleged plot against the Holy Father’s life.

Is Pope Francis joking or is he rebuking his critics? I suspect that the answer is “both.” We can readily understand how the pope, who admits that he is an ordinary human being (“a sinner”), might become annoyed by the criticism he receives day in and day out from those who disagree with him. And yet, we also know that this pope welcomes, even encourages, feedback from people with different opinions about issues of importance to the Church and society.

When Pope Francis recently announced the process of preparation for the 2023 assembly of the Synod of Bishops, he went out of his way to insist on the importance of listening to everyone—especially those who are hurt, marginalized or angry. “There will always be debates, thanks be to God,” the Holy Father said, “but the solutions must be sought by giving the floor to God and to the [diverse] voices among us.”

Let’s take Pope Francis seriously, but let’s avoid falling into the trap of taking everything he says literally.

(Daniel Conway is a member of The Criterion’s editorial committee.)

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